In the early years of the twentieth century United States President Theodore Roosevelt described his approach to foreign policy as “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He stood, he said, for “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.”
Our Commissioner of Police might well have considered Roosevelt’s dictum as he contemplated how to respond to the occupation of Parliament grounds that is becoming more entrenched as each day passes. While he has certainly spoken softly enough – indeed, some would say far too softly and even then very belatedly – since the protest began, it is now woefully clear he carries no big stick. Nor does it appear there was any forethought ahead of the protest about what might eventuate and how it could be intelligently and decisively handled.
To date, none of the steps taken by the Police have worked. The early resort to mass arrests looked chillingly like the dragging away of protestors during the Bastion Point occupation in the 1970s. It petered out after only a day when it became obvious that it had done nothing to weaken the resolve of the protestors, and that there was not sufficient cell space available to hold large numbers of people arrested this way. Nor were the Courts likely to appreciate having their already hopelessly overcrowded timetable further burdened through the large number of cases likely to arise as a result.
So that approach was abandoned, giving an unwanted pyric victory to the protestors. Then came the clumsy plan to allow people to shift their vehicles to a specially established safe haven at Wellington’s nearby Sky Stadium. That failed when protestors became wary that it was primarily a thinly disguised device to get them off Parliament grounds, rather than the traffic management response it was promoted as. It was therefore hardly surprising that the uptake of the offer was minimal.
Only after a week of the occupation, when tempers and public tolerance had become extremely frayed, did the Commissioner of Police make his first public comment. That time delay was extraordinary enough but just as extraordinary was the limpness of his eventual statement, described by Newshub’s political editor as a “joke.”
The Commissioner intoned the protest was “no longer tenable”, something those living and working nearby had been saying for days beforehand. He then issued his ineffectual warning that obstructing vehicles are about to be towed away, confiscated, and anyone who impedes that process will be arrested. While that might have sounded good, he seemed to overlook that it is one thing to make such grand statements, but something else to enforce them.
For whatever reason he has not got the co-operation of the towing industry to start towing away vehicles. Nor does he yet have the commitment of the Defence Force. There have been loose suggestions that the Defence Force might be utilised to assist in the removal of vehicles, but nothing more specific has so far been forthcoming. Nor, based on experience, is it likely.
Over the years, the Defence Force has been very wary of becoming involved in law-and-order situations, for obvious and proper reasons. Where it has assisted the Police it has been in responding to civil emergencies like earthquakes, floods, or severe storms, where its logistical and recovery skills can be employed to best effect. From the time of the Springbok tour, though, the Defence Force has generally and prudently shied well clear of becoming a back-up law-and-order agency to the Police.
All of which leaves the Commissioner’s tardy response looking hesitant and pleading, rather than decisive. That is sadly more grist to the protestors’ mill. It also places the front-line Police who have been doing a thankless but professional and vital task holding the line in Parliament grounds in an impossible position. They have been left in the meantime to carry on their tedious task of holding the line almost indefinitely while their leaders continue to flounder around in search of a viable solution.
When added to the vacuum of political leadership now exposed, the situation is rapidly being reduced to the level of farce. Politicians are happy to stand loftily to one side, saying while they respect the right of people to protest, they will not talk to them because they disagree with the cause they promote, and that, in any case, the matter is for the Police to resolve. For their part, the Police leadership seems bereft of any viable strategy to do so. Worse, what steps they have taken to date have neither worked nor been sustained. The Police now look as impotent as the government has proven itself to be.
Inevitably, there has been airy talk of changing the law to prevent this situation ever recurring. But that is a meaningless and unnecessary diversionary tactic. The law as it stands is sufficient, if properly enforced. The erection of the first tent should never have been allowed, let alone the proliferation that followed. Letting that occur legitimised the occupation that has followed.
real solution lies in Roosevelt’s warning of the need for “intelligent
forethought” followed by “decisive action” to bolster soft talk. In recent
years we have become far too focussed on treating speaking softly about how
things should be as end of itself. However unpalatable it may currently be, there
needs to be more focus ensuring there is a workable big stick to back up the rhetoric.
In his current predicament, the essentially earnest and well-meaning Commissioner
of Police would likely agree.