For many public servants, the recent occupation of Parliament grounds was not just a news story but a lived reality, with PSA members subject to daily harassment and intimidation at the hands of the occupation’s extremists.
A PSA survey, carried out at the height of the occupation, found 90 per cent of Parliamentary members feared for their safety when entering or leaving Parliament grounds. Around half experienced verbal harassment, while six per cent were physically attacked.
As the country picks apart the many – often contradictory – grievances that culminated in a flurry of violence during the protest’s collapse, public servants may well ask themselves: how can we ensure this never happens again?
THE OCCUPATION’S AFTERMATH
Our response must tread a careful line. We can’t give airtime to the demands of extremists, particularly those who have threatened the lives of Parliamentary workers, but if we’re serious about allaying further eruptions of anger, we must try to understand the factors that drew people to the occupation in the first place.
The protesters may have denied themselves a fair hearing – by either threatening, condoning or carrying out acts of violence – but some did have comprehensible reasons to be angry.
Not because of their opposition to vaccine mandates. These are temporary measures largely justified by the need to protect public health. But because many were poor or otherwise socially excluded.
They told stories of racism, personal poverty, unemployment, and feeling ill at ease in modern society.
These feelings were seized upon by the protest’s organisers, who promoted narratives of unaccountable state power and a supposedly malignant political elite. In an awful irony, some of the occupation’s key figures espoused white supremacist views.
While the protesters remain a small, unrepresentative group, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders know what it is to live with poverty and racism. If nothing else, the country has a strong interest in ensuring those with similar experiences do not venture down the same dark path.
THE ROLE OF PUBLIC SERVICE
How does this affect public servants and the services they deliver? Firstly, it is a reminder to New Zealanders of the vast increase in inequality and poverty the country has experienced since the 1980s and 90s.
Over the past forty years, child hardship has doubled and the disparity between rich and poor grew more rapidly than in any other developed country in the world. The government has made inroads into the problem, but much more work is needed, and public services – in particular tax, public housing and welfare – will be central to this fight.
Those most easily swayed by extremists are usually isolated people with few social connections.
This makes rebuilding communities an essential part of neutralising extremist arguments before they take
As the Green MP Teanau Tuiono has written, communities are “healthier, safer and stronger for everyone” if people have warm, secure homes and living wages, and can access the education and healthcare they and their whānau need. This all relies heavily on the work of PSA members.
DEALING WITH DISINFORMATION
Other responses to the Parliamentary occupation, however, pose more complex questions for public servants.
A recent Stuff piece, on the ‘mumfluencers’ who use their online followings to promote conspiracy theories, claimed negative experiences with the mainstream health system often push people to look for “alternative information.”
More seriously still, Māori survivors of abuse in state care have been left with a lifelong distrust of government.
“I have been under their ‘care’,” Tumohe Clarke (Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Koroki Kahukura) told Re: News.
“It has been terrible for me, psychologically, mentally … And I would rather die from poverty than ask for their help.”
Multiple reports have also shown that Māori receive discriminatory treatment in the health system: they are put into seclusion at five times the rates of other ethnicities, for instance, and receive significantly worse treatment for cancer.
While government is highly trusted overall – over four-fifths of New Zealanders report positive interactions with the public sector – this discrimination must be addressed.
A POINT OF REFLECTION
Many frontline public servants want to deliver services in a more personalised, responsive, and egalitarian way. They are often more frustrated than anyone by the top-down edicts and structures that exist within their sectors.
As one review found, those barriers mean most frontline innovation “is kept below the radar… until an appropriate time (which may never come).”
The new Public Service Act claims to challenge these structures, but much more work is needed to reorient public services around the needs of citizen-users, so that they are treated with dignity as a matter of course.
Given the success of Māori and Pasifika health organisations during the pandemic, one option would be to hand the delivery of some services over to trusted local providers.
More participatory decision-making processes – such as citizens’ assemblies, in which ordinary people are brought into the heart of government – could also help to increase public trust and counter misinformation.
Greater openness about public-sector algorithms and personal data use could help to address legitimate public concern about privacy and big tech.
Only by restoring trust in our public services – and bringing socially excluded communities back into the fold – can public servants play their part in neutralising the extremist arguments that underpinned the occupation, and prevent a repeat of the intimidation, harassment, and violence it tragically ushered in.
Max Rashbrooke is a New-Zealand-based writer with interests in economic inequality and democratic participation. He is a senior associate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies