Hayden Munro: Anti-vaccine mandate protesters cause being hijacked by right-wing fringe

OPINION

I was in the cafe at New Plymouth Airport when I got the call that there had been a major terrorist attack at a mosque in Christchurch.

I had spent the day on the road with my boss, Megan Woods, for whom I was working at the time as a ministerial press secretary. The job usually involves booking media interviews, writing press releases and advising on the media issues of the day.

It doesn’t usually involve breaking the news to your minister that a mosque in her electorate has been attacked by a gunman, and that many of the friends she had made in that community may have been injured or killed. But on that day, March 15, 2019, that’s what I did.

I’ve been thinking about that day and about the horrible act of violence and hatred that marked it, ever since I read of this week’s arrest of Philip Arps. It came after he allegedly told a person at a Linwood petrol station in Christchurch that he was planning to travel to Wellington to join protesters there for a “public execution”, adding, “I’ll see you in seven to 10 years.”

For readers lucky enough to have never heard of Mr Arps, he is a white supremacist who was jailed shortly after March 15 for distributing the video of the attack and asking a contact to edit it to include video game-style crosshairs and a body count. He is a man that I believe appears as committed to the ideologies of white supremacy as any of the Nazis my grandfather fought at Crete and in Egypt.

The fact that once again our peaceful little country is visited by the spectre of political violence is worrying. But it is not surprising. There’s been too much talk of that kind recently.

The idea of Nuremberg-style executions of politicians is a frequent talking point for many involved in the anti-vaccine convoy movement, it has appeared over and over in the encrypted Telegram chats that its participants send each other, it adorns many of the protest signs they carry, it has been referenced to approving cheers from the crowd over the megaphone at their rallies, calls to hang politicians have been scrawled on the ground nearby, and passers-by have been egged and spat on.

The report of the Royal Commission into the March 15 attacks offers us valuable insights into the risk of this kind of behaviour.

It tells us how the terrorist was radicalised, how he found spaces online where talking about and promoting acts of violence was normalised, celebrated and rewarded. It tells us that the more time he spent in such places, the greater the likelihood of him acting on what he was seeing and thinking.

This to me is what is so disturbing about our current moment. We are seeing a huge explosion in the number of spaces where conspiracy theories, threats of violence and hatred are normalised and celebrated. We’ve seen a deluge of this kind of discourse online, and now we have seen that bleed into a real-world occupation.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Government’s public health measures have rightly been the cause of enormous public and political debate. That’s good. It’s healthy for a democracy that no Government, not even one which won the largest popular mandate in our modern history, should be able to take such sweeping measures without strong opposition.

But it is inarguable that this protest movement has featured much more than just opposition to mandates and has become a place where violent rhetoric is accepted. Where fringe conspiracy theories that can lead to violence are given a free airing and are not challenged by the organisers or by some in the media.

All of that is wrong and all of it needs to stop.

New Zealanders pride ourselves that we are a place largely free from the type of political violence we saw in America on January 6, 2021, or in Britain with the murder of MP Jo Cox. But we used to pride ourselves on being a country without mass shootings or white supremacist violence too.

If we want to stay a country where we solve political issues at the ballot box instead of at gunpoint, we all need to do a better job at pushing back on the type of disturbing violent discourse we’ve seen so much of recently.

And if those protesting vaccine mandates want the rest of us to listen to them and understand their concerns, they need to face up to the way their cause is being hijacked by a dangerous fringe and put a stop to the death threats, the thuggery and the violent rhetoric from those within their ranks.

● Hayden Munro was the campaign manager for Labour’s successful 2020 election win. He now works in corporate PR for Wellington-based firm Capital Communications and Government Relations.

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