Politicians shut down submission from rail protesters 'acting illegally' on Wellington motorway

Politicians have refused to hear from protesters streaming into a Select Committee from the top of a Wellington motorway gantry.

The protesters, who are advocating for more inter-regional passenger rail, positioned themselves on a gantry over State Highway 1 near Johnsonville. They had a banner reading: "Michael Wood. We need to talk". Emergency services responded to the incident, diverting traffic away. 

National's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown told the committee it wouldn't be appropriate to hear from the protesters "while they're actively breaking the law". His colleague David Bennett said allowing the submission would make a "mockery" of the committee. 

Members of the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee then went into a closed session, ultimately deciding not to hear from the protesters while they were on the gantry.

"This group are reckless idiots who are doing nothing to advance their cause and are simply causing severe disruption to motorists," Brown tweeted afterwards.

Restore Passenger Rail is the group behind the demonstrations that have blocked main Wellington roads over recent weeks. Multiple protesters have been arrested for sitting down on the motorways and refusing to allow traffic through. 

The group wanted to submit via Zoom on the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee's inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail on Thursday morning.

However, technical issues meant the committee couldn't initially hear a protester streaming in from the motorway gantry.

Brown could be heard quipping: "Must have put some glue over the microphone". That's a reference to the glue protesters often use to stick themselves to the motorways.

"What motorway are you blocking today?" asked Brown, who had a "stop blocking motorways" sign in front of him.

As the sound issues were dealt with, the committee went to another submitter. However, when the committee came back to Restore Passenger Rail, Brown intervened.

"I don't think it is appropriate we listen to them while they are actively breaking the law. I would suggest we move on to the next submitter," he said.

"I don't think it's right that we hear from a group that is acting illegally and simply give them the attention that they want."

Before the politicians moved into closed session to discuss the matter, Bennett, another National MP, warned hearing from the group while they undertook such activity "would create a massive precedent".

"They've done this on purpose. It is obvious that they have made the intention to do this publicly at the same time they were going to be here. It is a mockery of the political process and an abuse of power by them," he said.

"We shouldn't be condoning any illegal behaviour. If we accept them submitting from where they are, we are effectively supporting their illegal behaviour."

Prior to the Select Committee appearance, the group released a statement calling on Michael Wood, the Transport Minister, to "commit to restoring an affordable nationwide passenger rail system". 

"We're speaking to the committee from a signage gantry rather than a comfortable meeting room, to wake the government up to the urgent need for climate action," said spokesperson Rosemary Penwarden. "This select committee's brief is too narrow and too slow. The current NZ Rail Plan still focuses on freight and tourism, once again putting passengers in the back seat."

The group complained Wood hadn't been engaging with them.

"Emissions continue to rise while you in Parliament - you decision makers with the power to make the changes we need - are not fulfilling your duty of care to all New Zealanders. This is a dangerous act of utter neglect."

Following previous protests by the group, Wood called their actions "unacceptable"

"It's up to the police to determine whether it's criminal, but I'll clearly call it idiotic, extremely dangerous and totally counterproductive," he said.

He said the Government is "really interested" in the potential for more passenger rail in New Zealand, but "this sort of activity will not build support for it, it'll do exactly the opposite".

"Since 2017, we have invested $8.6 billion to build a resilient and reliable network after decades of neglect and decline," he said.

"Much of this is the bread and butter of our network replacing track, new culverts and bridges, upgraded turnouts, all of which are needed for a safe and effective network. This is also crucial work ahead of considering whether we introduce additional freight and passenger services across the network."

The minister pointed out that the Labour Government introduced the Te Huia rail service between Hamilton and Auckland, which he said is to "help build the case for additional regional and inter-regional rail services".

"We continue to have positive engagements with many rail advocates. However, these protesters are undermining their cause and frustrating the public, when they should be working to build public support for future Rail investment."