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Karl du Fresne

Pushback at last against Harawira’s vigilantes

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Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is slowly stirring as if from a long, deep slumber.

The first signs of life became apparent when Northland MP Matt King shook himself awake and called on the police to shut down the unlawful checkpoints set up by Hone Harawira’s followers in the Far North, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting vulnerable Maori communities from Covid-19.

That it took more than three weeks for anyone from the National Party to question the legality of the checkpoints points to the potency of whatever sleeping draught the party had ingested. But at least it was a start.

King was prodded into action following a complaint from a man who said he and his wife had been prevented from driving to nearby Kaihoke for groceries – on the face of it, a flagrant interference in their freedom of movement, imposed with no legal mandate whatsoever other than an informal nod of approval from the local police and the district mayor, the undistinguished former MP John Carter.

Newshub reported that the couple were detained against their will after refusing (quite rightly) to tell their interrogators where they lived. Four of the masked vigilantes allegedly surrounded the couple’s vehicle and took photos of the number plate. Terrified, the wife phoned 111 for help.

After several minutes the couple were told to move to a holding area for further questioning and seized the opportunity to drive off. By the time they made their return journey, police had apparently intervened and the blockade was no longer operating, although the people manning it were still at the roadside.

According to King, other members of the public, including a paramedic, had told of being made to stop and take flyers. People found the checkpoints intimidating but were too scared to say anything.

So … private citizens going about their lawful business have been stopped, detained and intimidated. And the police, who are entrusted to uphold the rule of law (and are normally ultra-zealous about deterring anyone impertinent enough to usurp their role), have looked the other way.

Just why the police have chosen to so cravenly abdicate isn’t clear, but a possible explanation is that they have been instructed not to get offside with local iwi activists. Anything to keep the peace, even if it means risking the goodwill of people whose natural instinct is to respect the law.

The media, previously diligent in their disinclination to subject Harawira’s Tai Tokerau Border Control (apparently that’s what the vigilantes call themselves) to any critical scrutiny, reported King’s statement and added an empty assurance by deputy police commissioner Wally Haumaha – the same Wally Haumaha who survived a Police Conduct Authority investigation which found he had humiliated and intimidated two women subordinates – to the effect that police had “advised” people running the checkpoints on the “appropriate” way to conduct themselves.

Not a word about their legality, or the right of iwi enforcers to usurp the role of properly constituted authorities such as the police and district council. Nothing to see here, folks.

But public anxiety at the way these blockades are operating – and not just in the Far North, but on the East Coast and reportedly in the central North Island as well – has reached such a level that National MPs can’t ignore it. The party’s agonisingly slow awakening continued yesterday during a meeting of Parliament’s epidemic response committee, where Gerry Brownlee brought up the case of an elderly man who was prevented from going to buy milk by a member of the Mongrel Mob.

The man’s MP, Anne Tolley, said she understood that the people manning the checkpoints wanted to protect their communities [from infection], but in New Zealand people should have the right of passage. “If it’s not managed well, I’m worried it could get out of hand.”

Coming from a senior representative of a party that supposedly stands for individual freedom, this was an astonishingly half-hearted defence of a right that’s taken for granted in all liberal democracies. But at least it prompted police minister Stuart Nash into a belated denunciation of “ratbags and renegades” manning illegal roadblocks.

Unfortunately, Nash’s tough-sounding talk was so qualified as to be meaningless. He said that where roadblocks were set up without the support of the local community or the police, “the police will take this very seriously”.

That’s bound to have Harawira quaking in his jandals. As most people realise, the time to crack down on the illegal checkpoints was several weeks ago, when they first appeared. They’re now an established fact, and any attempt to dismantle them could get messy.

It follows that the longer the checkpoints are allowed to continue, the greater the risk that iwi separatists will regard it as their de facto right to police their own “borders” – and by implication, assert sovereignty in other areas of public life, which you can be sure was Harawira’s goal from the get-go. The ultimate objective, as I’ve said before, is the formation of an Indigenous People’s Republic of Te Tai Tokerau.

National’s lame performance continued on Morning Report this morning when the party’s shadow police minister, Brett Hudson, called for “clarity” over the legality of what he euphemistically called “community checkpoints”. If the government was going to condone them, Hudson said, it needed to publish guidelines on how they should be legally operated.

Wow, there’s a ringing defence of individual rights for you. You can always count on the Nats to man the barricades when personal freedom is under attack.

In line with Radio NZ’s fastidious insistence on editorial balance, Morning Report followed the Hudson interview with a phone call to Tairawhiti activist Tina Ngata for her take on the checkpoints. She took an ingenious line, arguing that “community traffic management” is nothing new.

“This sort of activity has been happening for a long time,” Ngata said, citing the role of Maori wardens in traffic management and stretching credulity by implying the checkpoints were no different from locals taking charge of traffic at events such as galas and tangis. 

A crucial difference is that Maori wardens enjoy quasi-official status, and have done for a long time. Their activities are sanctioned under the Maori Community Development Act of 1962, and by virtue of their long history they function with the implied consent and goodwill of the community. 

The people manning the Northland and East Cape roadblocks enjoy no such legitimacy. Besides, I’ve never heard of anyone feeling intimidated or coerced by a Maori warden; on the contrary, their presence is usually a calming influence.

Ngata also said no one has been forced to stop. Perhaps that’s true in her East Coast rohe, but try telling that to the drivers who felt intimidated in the Far North, or the elderly man who was turned back at Maketu.

The justification advanced by the people manning the checkpoints is that they are doing so with the aim of protecting remote communities. Any reasonable person can sympathise with that objective, but it falls far short of justification for allowing self-appointed guardians to take the law into their own hands. Viewed against the backdrop of a long push for Maori nationalism, it should be seen for what it is: an attempt to advance a race-based separatist agenda.

This challenge to the rule of law is happening in plain sight, and no one – not even the National opposition – is doing anything about it, other than impotently tut-tutting.

*This article was originally published HERE.