New Zealand’s Ardern faces down frustration over pandemic curbs

WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sought to cool simmering resentment about the slow unlocking of the country’s pandemic restrictions on Thursday (Mar 3), a day after police cleared a weeks-long Canada-style protest outside parliament.

Police in riot gear battled protesters late into the night on Wednesday, finally bringing an end to the occupation which, despite acts of violence and extremist elements, helped rally some support for its calls to end pandemic restrictions.

In a special session of parliament to discuss the protest, the most violent in decades in the normally peaceful city, Ardern promised things would change, but gave no timeframe for easing curbs.

“Our people are coming home. Soon, tourists will return. Vaccine passes, mandates, restrictions – they will all change. There is reason to feel hopeful,” she said.

A one-time poster child for tackling the coronavirus, New Zealand’s swift response to the pandemic and its geographic isolation kept the country largely COVID-19 free until the end of last year, winning Ardern strong support. Total deaths stand at just 56.

However, anger over vaccine mandates for people working in sectors such as health and education and strict border closures have put pressure on the government to now soften its stance in line with much of the rest of the world.

“Ardern has to weave a path between acknowledging some of the government’s mistakes without appearing like the protesters had a point,” said Andrew Hughes from the Research School of Management at Australian National University.

“She can’t be seen condoning their behavior but she also can’t be seen as tone deaf.”

A Horizon Research snap poll released on Feb 18 found 30 per cent of those polled supported the protests and about the same percentage was opposed to Ardern’s vaccine mandate policy.

Some local businesses helped fund the encampment and well known figures such as Olympic yachtsman Russell Coutts, Winston Peters, a former deputy prime minister under Ardern, and former prime minister Jim Bolger urged dialogue.

“I’m not anti-vaccine (I’m vaccinated) but I’m definitely against forced vaccinations,” Coutts said in a Facebook post two weeks ago.

Ardern refused to meet the protesters, who she said had resorted to violence and bullying.

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