Weekend Herald

Motorised protests show PM needs to rev up rusty communicat­ion skills

- David Fisher opinion

Freedom of speech, gun bans, labour shortages, land grabs, ute tax, environmen­tal rules, money to gangs. In Kerikeri at noon, all the “hot button” topics were being hammered like the vehicle horns sounding during the Howl of a Protest.

There were a couple of hundred people along the main street watching a seemingly endless stream of vehicles and, like those driving by, they knew why they were there.

Or sort of, anyway. Digging for detail on the policy behind the headlines was difficult.

But there was deep and genuine feeling on display, and rather than detail there were slogans rich with overblown hyperbole. The sign on one ute demanded “No Mugabe government in NZ”.

New Zealand is a long way from Robert Mugabe’s despotic regime.

What it signals, though, is that The Great Communicat­or — Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — needs to work on her communicat­ion.

“I thought I had come to a firstworld country where I could express an opinion,” says Gerry Erasmus, 67, who left Zimbabwe in 2003. Now, he says, “there’s sort of an uneasy feeling”.

Not that he could think of anything he might want to say but now can’t. But that’s the point, he says: “There’s this thing about the hate-speech laws and no firm answers as to what is hate speech. In that sense, people are going to go ‘I’d better be careful what I say’. It instils a little bit of fear.”

In that vacuum, uncertaint­y. Perhaps fear. Certainly a lack of unity and direction. A relationsh­ip can survive with a little misunderst­anding. But it’s many misunderst­andings, seemingly all at once. That relationsh­ip between town-and-country has become strained, each talking past the other.

The disagreeme­nt might not be so great but who would know when the dialogue from Wellington is out of step with the concern in the regions?

Here in the north, there was rebellion over Significan­t Natural Areas, a move pushed onto councils to accurately map out special habitats under laws on the books since 1991. It was poorly communicat­ed, backfired and canned. Minister for Climate Change James Shaw, Green Party coleader, said ill-feeling was whipped up through misinforma­tion from some “Pakeha farmers from down south”.

He may be right but a month or so on those same “Pakeha farmers” organised yesterday’s protests. If there was misunderst­anding at the heart of it, Shaw deepened the divide.

“I do think there could be a big turnaround next election,” says John Worrall, 76, perched on a stone wall with wife Vicky as cars, utes and tractors pass. He is irked by the-hate speech laws (which are not laws yet) and the $2.75 million given “to the Mongrel Mob” (which it hasn’t been). “Because they have an outright majority, it’s like they’re running roughshod over people.”

“End the dictatorsh­ip,” read one sign. In 2011, John Key mused over a cup of tea with then-Act leader John Banks about winning more than 50 per cent of the vote. When Winston Peters spun it to media, he described it as Key seeking “absolute power”.

Willow-Jean Prime is the local electorate MP — the first to hold the seat for Labour since 1938. She won by a whisker, unseating the inherently unapologet­ic ute-driving Matt King from National. The tide doesn’t need to turn much to wash Prime away.

Hundreds of vehicles meandered through the Kerikeri town centre. Democracy breathed deeply and sucked in exhaust fumes.

There was a hilarious moment when an old tractor popped out of gear and stopped in the Kerikeri main street. The “Howl of a Protest” became a graunching of gears. The long line of traffic stopped. Silence fell as everyone watched the tractor.

Then the old clunker popped into gear and lurched forward. Cheers broke out and the protest began howling again.

Sally Stanford, 39, of Waipapa, arrived from South Africa last year.

“It’s a good feeling to know that here you can stand up for something and be safe to do it,” she says.

In South Africa, it’s a long way from safe right now. She has friends and family there. Knowing what they are confronted with, and what she is experienci­ng, is to know two different worlds.

“It’s a good time to be here, that’s for sure.”

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