The speaker of the house spraying anti-mandate protesters with water and Barry Manilow is funny. That doesn’t make it a good idea.
I cannot lie: I laughed. News that the speaker of the House of Representatives ordered a sound system to be wheeled out to parliament’s forecourt on a rainy Saturday night and blast Barry Manilow and the Macarena at anti-mandate protesters occupying the grounds below is, well, funny. It came roughly 24 hours after his last intervention – flicking on the garden sprinklers, dousing the makeshift campsite in water.
Trevor Mallard’s justification for the tactics? They’re not on the grounds legally; let’s make the Book-a-Bach a little less comfortable. Petulant? Yes. Peevish? Of course. But let’s keep it in perspective – there was something charmingly New Zealand about it all. In many capital cities, the reality would be water cannons instead of garden sprinklers, rubber bullets rather than the Copacabana. The protesters might like to imagine themselves bravely confronting some despotic regime. What they got was a cantankerous suburban homeowner out front in his dressing gown, cup of piping hot tea, hollering Get Off My Lawn. Instead of taking orders from some deadly tyrant, Mallard was taking requests, including from James Blunt, who generously suggested that he play some James Blunt.
But that doesn’t quite make it a good idea. Very predictably, Mallard only emboldened the protesters, helping to galvanise a group of people that has no obvious leader and an inchoate set of demands. Inspired by Canadian truckers, the New Zealand Convoy effort has at times looked like it might tear itself apart amid internecine, factional squabbling. It’s not as though Mallard’s stunts dramatically changed things; they’d be there with or without the rotation of Baby Shark, pipe music and public health advisories. But he fed many of their most distorted perceptions by engaging in – to quote numerous of their social media messages – “psychological warfare”. He bumped the story up the news sites and bulletins, and not just in New Zealand. He inspired them to dig trenches (no doubt feeding the fantasies of some that this is just like the war) and dance in formation to The Macarena, like participants in the weirdest scout camp ever.
It is wrong, of course, to dismiss all the protesters as conspiracy theorists, but they’re all conspiracy-adjacent. Nuremberg codes, global government, a hoax virus, human microchips, genocidal bioweapons – the language is sprinkled across the signage at parliament and online. The man behind the protesters’ media channel of choice, Counterspin, propagates all of those brain worms. He took a moment yesterday to say that the moon landings were a hoax. On the outer fringes, a handful of protest supporters postulated that the New Zealand government had engineered the weather in order to unleash a tempest at parliament.
Trevor Mallard is a very capable man, and it is true he has flirted with the idea of bringing back the moa, but he cannot divert cyclones. If he could, Wellingtonians might reasonably ask why he hasn’t fixed the weather more often. What he did do, however, is provide a kind of lightning rod, both a motivational tool and a target of upset for the muddied fields of parliament. It confirmed in the minds of the crowds that the 122 arrests made on Thursday, in a police action that was abandoned and now looks like a clear mistake, was at his urging.
What was Mallard doing, then? There may be method in the Manilow. It could be he’s quite nobly made himself the centre of attention. Many MPs, parliamentary staffers and media have felt terrified over recent days, weeks and months. For good reason, too: the same people that insist they come in peace brandish images of nooses and guillotines. Death threats have become a depressingly routine feature of politician and journalist inboxes. “Hang em high” was chalked on the parliamentary forecourt for all to see. The charitable reading is the speaker’s intention was to distract, deflect, soak up the deranged fury, at the same time as puncturing any tinfoil hats with ridicule.
Whether the intention was honourable, satirical or simply irascible, the question is this: in a febrile situation, now accepted by everyone to be unprecedented, was that really a smart thing to do? When that was put to Corrie Parnell, the Wellington police commander overseeing the operation, last night, he said Mallard’s sprinkler-and-music offensive was “certainly not a tactic we would encourage [or] endorse but it is what it is”. Translated from superintendent-speak, I think what he’s saying is: For Christ’s sake, Trevor, you’re not helping, will you bloody well give it a rest.
As for the challenge before them now, Parnell raised concerns around vulnerable children and a lack of sanitation as the protest enters its sodden seventh day, with Portaloos overflowing and puddles flecked with human shit. Inexplicably, protesters appeared to have been allowed to bring whatever they please on to the grounds: hay bales, power tools, gazebos big enough to contain dance floors, even stacks of patio heaters. Police are finding it impossible to set up a line of communication to discuss options with the group, largely because there are no obvious leaders who can speak on their behalf. Police say some of those encamped have weapons – though not as far as they know firearms – on the site. White nationalist groups have confirmed their presence. Violent extremism and far-right ideology have been revealed to pervade the template abroad. Anything that slows a resolution is a problem.
If you wade through enough livestreams and comment threads you’d think the leader of the anti-mandate convoy gathering is Joe Rogan or Tucker Carlson, so desperate are the convoy crew to be noticed by their American broadcast heroes. For his part, Trevor Mallard looks like he’s trying to get noticed by Stephen Colbert. The Copacabana strategy came directly from Twitter; “Play them Barry Manilow all night,” was a friendly suggestion from someone with the username “Feijoa_Chutney”, to which Mallard replied with a winking-face emoji. These are some times we live in, and I can’t pretend I’m not captivated. But the Speaker of the House of Representatives holds a weighty office, constitutionally the third most important in the country. And right now it seems like his preoccupation is parliamentary process, representative democracy, faves and retweets.