National would have 'arrested everyone' at Auckland's Black Lives Matter protest - Willie Jackson

Opinion 05/06/2020

Labour MP Willie Jackson says if the National Party had its way, police would have arrested everyone at Auckland's Black Lives Matter protest.

About 4000 people flocked to the CBD on Monday to show solidarity with protesters in the US after yet another death of an unarmed African-American man at the hands of police. 

Unlike many of the demonstrations in the US, the protest here was peaceful - but photos show few of those there were wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines, with New Zealand still at pandemic alert level 2. 

"I'm all for peaceful protest, but I noticed there wasn't a lot of social distancing going on," National MP Judith Collins told The AM Show on Friday.

"I think it's really important for people to have the right to peacefully protest, but this is the problem - we couldn't have funerals, we couldn't have all sorts of things going on, people couldn't have weddings."

On Monday it had been 10 days since the last confirmed case of COVID-19 - inside the potential 14-day incubation period for the virus, which can spread asymptomatically. Despite the concerns, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said there was no need for attendees to go into self-isolation. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday the protest was a clear "breach of the rules" which limit gathering sizes. 

Police later said they didn't intervene because it would have inflamed tensions - their US counterparts have been accused of provoking much of the violence seen in the past week, with numerous videos on social media appearing to show officers attacking unarmed civilians with batons, rubber bullets and tear gas. They also declined to prosecute the march's organisers. 

Though the police have operational independence, Jackson told The AM Show the outcome in Auckland would have been different if National was in power.

"The National Party would have gone in and arrested everyone... you would have gone in. But we're into people, free speech and doing the business."

National's police spokesperson Brett Hudson on Tuesday said this would not have been the case.

"If you have rules around our alert levels and what people can and can't do, of course there should be enforcement and consequences for those who choose to breach them, but it is a matter for police and police discretion as to exactly what actions they take."

Jackson said the Government didn't move to stop the march because they didn't realise 4000 people would show up. 

"You don't know these things are going to go. Black Lives Matter is important kaupapa but you know, it happened, we're through it, we've made it clear we didn't agree with the flouting of the rules. But the other side of it is let's support some of the things they were talking about and what's going on in America at the moment." 

Collins said the lack of consequences, and Dr Bloomfield's assertion none of the protesters would need to self-isolate, showed the Government knows there isn't any local transmission of the virus and we should be at alert level 1, allowing normal life and business to resume for most.

"The only reason I think  that Jacinda Ardern has waited another week is to make it look like there's a problem - and there clearly isn't a problem, because otherwise we'd have all those 4000 protesters being asked to go and socially isolate, which is what microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles would have said.

"There's a Cabinet paper saying basically it's fine... I think Willie's on a hiding to nothing on this one." 

New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has also called for a move to level 1.

"He's put his view and Labour have the numbers in Cabinet, and we support our Prime Minister's view that we have to tread carefully," said Jackson.

"All the facts and all the statistics say we did everything at the right time... We've done well, haven't we? Congratulate us. Everyone, we've got to all congratulate each other. Health-wise and economic-wise, we're probably in a better spot than most countries in the world, you know? It's been absolutely brilliant." 

Jackson, who is not a member of Cabinet, says he expects his superiors to approve a move to level 1 next week.