Jane Clifton: Vladimir Putins grim reminder to protesters – this is what a society with no rules actually looks like


The invasion of Ukraine urgently reminds us of the value of laws, whether for international trade deals or vaccine mandates. By Jane Clifton

It was tempting to respond to the Government’s hoopla about the free trade breakthrough between New Zealand and Britain with a query about where the rest of the deal was.

It clears roadblocks over the next decade or so, making access easier for our exporters, and no one’s going to sneer at greater availability of British whisky, gin and Jaguars. Still, on their side, the deal makes no economic difference, and on ours, “handy” and “painless” are the boldest adjectives that can fairly be summoned.

However, the alleged vacuum-bombing of Ukraine by Russia lent an urgent perspective to the agreement. In so brutally refusing to do orderly deals – on trade or anything much else – Russia reminds us why we should be exultant about even an agreement as beige as this one. Sure, it nowhere near restores New Zealand to the decades when it was Britain’s well-paid southern larder, and one of world’s wealthiest countries as a result. But unlike Russia, we have accepted that the past is not a template that can be enforced in perpetuity.

This carnage is not happening solely because President Vladimir Putin fears his appendage will drop off if he doesn’t keep reminding the world of his machismo, but because he believes territory once under Russia’s dominion should always be so. Accordingly, he’s not using his opulent social-distancing table for talks about optimising mutually beneficial trade with resource-rich Ukraine. He’s out to annex it the old-fashioned way, with troops and bombs.

However divided New Zealand may currently seem about so many issues, one thing all but the severely loopy agree on is the importance of a rules-based society. More even than democracy, the value of a fair, enforceable legal system is freedom’s best protection.

Putin deems this one-law-for-all palaver to be unmanly. Nor does China subscribe to our Western conception of the way things should be done.

China has its methods against the pesky impediments of its law-abiding trade partners, chiefly spying, money-bombing of politicians and “partnering” unwary countries with projects that prove to be debt traps.

Russia finds even that finagling to be boringly civilised.

In from the cold

To most New Zealanders’ shame, the recent spate of anti-Government Covid protests here has highlighted that there are a few Putins among us, prepared to use violence to upend democracy. Security services have just upgraded the terror risk they pose. Like Putin, they seem ridiculous fantasists, but they can’t lightly be dismissed.

Even bellowing their threats alongside others who believe vaccination magnetises and blackens the blood, and that paedophiles secretly run the world, our Putins are nonetheless spreading what, for their agenda, is a useful mood of unease far beyond what we like to think of as the lunatic fringe.

A curious background to this was one of the great swizzes of the Parliament occupation. While most of the protesters hunkered day and night in the shadow of the Beehive, braving the death rays which they sincerely believed the Government has been beaming down upon them, some of their number were regularly beetling off to a hotel each night.

It was the same hotel, in many cases, where the imported police ranks were being put up during the siege. By day it was extreme chess with concrete bollards, weaponised body fluids and “hang ’em high”. By night: off for a nice hot bath, a private dunny and a high-thread-count kip, with a friendly nod to officers sharing the lift.

Along with the occupation’s herb garden, trampolines, Pilates classes and hot-and-cold-running insta-plumbing, this stealthy comfort-seeking could be seen as a waning of commitment to the cause of hard-core Covid scepticism. But militancy hasn’t abated since the police finally “Move Move Move’d” a lot of them on last Wednesday. More likely, the protesters’ comfort-creep was a sign that the cause is now on the rise in middle-New Zealand. Resistance to the official line on pandemic response is transcending the rump of white supremacists, conspiracy ranters and 1080 obsessives, and becoming almost respectable.

It’s still hopelessly illogical to say you’re pro-vax but anti-mandate. It’s not possible to be anti-mandate without disregarding the science of how coronavirus spreads. That position bizarrely assumes it’s perfectly safe for some folk to opt out of Covid precautions for philosophical reasons, which is akin to saying people’s beliefs should exempt them from following the road rules.

The anti-mandators pounce on the fact that Covid restrictions, even vaccines, don’t prevent Covid spread. Nor do the road rules prevent accidents and deaths. But these are the most exhaustively researched and monitored prevention protocols in history. Upwards of 17 protesters were not admitted to hospital because the beastly police officers broke their bones, but because they treated the science as an impertinence or a trick to control them, rather than a set of facts.

Late adopters

It would be more accurate to call this new era of anti-mandate sentiment anti-Government or anti-establishment.

A year ago, you’d barely have got the quorum for a Tupperware evening if you tried to start a Covid-sceptical protest. Overseas, heaving hordes were doing things such as punching police horses and mounting monuments and sticking fireworks up their naked buttocks. Rallies here were delightfully feeble.

Turns out New Zealand was just a late adopter. Now, behind the spate of protest occupations is a disillusioned section of voters cheering them on at home, if only for giving the bossy Government what-for. Compliance fatigue was inevitable, but even though the Government seems daily to accelerate the lifting of restrictions, impatience is more virulent than Omicron.

That the Ministry of Health yet again seriously overestimated test-processing capacity, leaving tens of thousands of people in an indefinite purgatory of anxiety, will have stoked resentment. Thousands of mask-less protesters facing no timely consequences for the damage they’ve caused – to public health, property and others’ sense of physical safety – reinforces some people’s sense that priorities in this country are skew-whiff.

In a world-class feat of leading with the chin, the Wellington City Council blitzed non-protesters’ cars last week with tickets, triggering a campaign of non-payment avowals.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine renders all this achingly petty, but it also reminds us to treasure our freedom to bicker about our rules and laws. At least we have them.

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