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Jenny Shipley's Political Police
Tim Barnett (Labour MP Christchurch Central) - 26/5/00

One of the enduring and possibly most relevant memories of APEC (1999) will be the manner in which the Police interfered with lawful protest action. In Christchurch and Wellington, protestors discovered that the government was determined to prevent protests from being heard by Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin. Indeed, there were strong rumours that the President had been assured by the New Zealand Government prior to his arrival that he would not see a Tibetan flag or hear a protestor.

I am glad that there was a rapid condemnation of the police actions at the protest in Christchurch. Dr Bill Hodge, associate professor of law at Auckland University, criticised the police actions the very next day saying that the police were "not the Prime Minister's private army". My partner and I were at the dinner for Jiang Zemin in Christchurch. We also met with the protestors. We had a first-hand view of what happened.

The protest was very successful as it delayed the arrival of the Chinese Premier and ensured that the issue of Tibet was on the minds of all who attended. It was loud and well attended. At one stage the dinner guests - located on the 14th floor of the building - were asked to hush so that officials could hear whether the protestors could be heard. The protestors were having an impact.

However, there was no risk to anyone's personal security and the protestors behaved according to the restrictions on location imposed by police. There was no justification for what followed.

In a move reminiscent of the breaking of miners' strikes in Britain under the authoritarian Margaret Thatcher, police leapt over the barricades and collared the protest organisers. The protestors fled before regrouping, startled and frightened. This was a shocking abuse of police power. Sirens were then used to drown out protestors to ensure that the Chinese Premier could not hear them.

The most remarkable aspect of the police assault on the protest was that it happened at the urging of the Prime Minister's Office. When Mark Prebble, head of the Cabinet Office and brother of MP Richard Prebble, working hand in hand with a Chinese general goaded a reluctant police force into action, he crossed the line. He changed the role of the police from being an apolitical police force to the Prime Minister's own private political police. This was unacceptable and I believe his actions breached the New Zealand Bill of Rights.

In another case of APEC paranoia, I was warned that if I went out from the hotel a second time to speak to protestors, I would not be allowed back in. My partner Jonathan Kirkpatrick, Dean of Dunedin Cathedral, was initially prevented from re-entering the Hotel Grand Chancellor after exhorting the protestors to keep up their good work.

The protestors in Wellington faced similar experiences to those in Christchurch. Greg Nicol, my parliamentary secretary was among the protestors in Wellington who were arrested. This was for asserting his right to lawful protest. He objected when the Police insisted on shifting the protest out of Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin's sight and hearing.

Unsurprisingly, charges were dropped the next day. The Police must have known that, had they placed the protestors before a court, the reality would have been that police, not protestors, would have been on trial, as they would have had to explain quite unjustifiable arrests.

In one final twist to the APEC assault on public displays of dissent, a banner was stolen from the courtyard of my office. The Student Christian Movement had produced a banner that was critical of President Clinton for his covert arming of the Indonesian military. The banner was being stored in the courtyard of the office. Unfortunately, someone decided that the banner was not to be used and a well-dressed man in a black suit was seen leaving the gates to my Electorate office at around 10.15am of the morning of Bill Clinton's visit. The offender left in the direction of the Millennium Hotel.

I am angry that this banner was stolen from the grounds of my office. It seems that an official of some description stole it. If it was a New Zealand government official, no warrant was provided. It seems more likely that the banner was taken by one of President Bill Clinton's entourage.

For democracy to be real and not just a fašade, it must be open and fair. During APEC we learnt that the present government's commitment to democracy was not as strong as we would like to think. We learnt that when the present government wants to be on good terms with trading partners then critical democratic expression has no place and will be repressed. That is a sobering lesson.




 
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