Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. Hone Harawira and his mates are manning checkpoints on main highways in the Far North to intercept tourists and turn them back, ostensibly to protect their people from Covid-19. He describes it as a border-closing exercise.
And the police, whose statutory duty is to maintain law and order, appear to have meekly gone along with this brazen usurpation of their authority by a failed MP (he was tossed out by his own Maori voters in 2014) with no legal mandate whatsoever.
While the eyes of the country and the media have been on supermarket queues, toilet paper shortages and prime ministerial press conferences, Harawira appears to be using the health crisis as a smokescreen for an opportunistic grab for power – and he’s getting away with it.
Some commentators have rightly highlighted the risk that new rules imposed to control the spread of Covid-19 will lead to an abuse of state power, but an even greater danger to civil liberties is posed when Maori activists take it upon themselves to limit people’s freedom of movement. Politicians can at least be punished at the next election if they get things wrong or overstep the mark, but who is Harawira accountable to? No one.
We didn't see this coming, but perhaps we should have. Harawira comes from a whanau with a long history of bullying and aggressive behaviour.
His concerns about the threat posed to Maori health in the Far North by thoughtless overseas tourists might be entirely valid. Elderly Maori are especially vulnerable. But no one, Maori or otherwise, gave Harawira the right to take matters into his own hands (with the help of his rugby league-playing mates, whose presence at the roadblocks can be counted on to intimidate travellers into complying with their instructions/requests).
This is a classic try-on: a direct challenge to the authority of those who are supposed to be in charge, such as the police and district council. And far from resisting him, they’re cravenly waving him through.
Police deputy commissioner Wally Haumaha dresses up police co-operation with Harawira as a matter of supporting local iwi and encouraging people to work together. It’s not about putting roadblocks in place, he assured Radio NZ. But that’s exactly what it is, even if Haumaha prefers to use bullshit euphemisms such as “safe assembly points” or “community safety zones”.
Harawira was also interviewed on RNZ but predictably wasn’t asked the obvious questions, such as who appointed him as local commissar or where he got his authority. He talked of “weeding out tourists” and “politely” turning them around and sending them back to Auckland. He sounded like a man confident no one would try to stop him, and indeed claimed he was working with the police.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers the failure of the police to take action on previous occasions when Maori protesters defied the law by blocking public roads leading to disputed land, or allowed the iwi of James Takamore to keep his body against his family’s wishes when all the courts said it had no right to.
You could almost be excused for wondering whether Harawira fancies himself as a local version of the Middle Eastern and North African warlords who exercise total authority within their own domains and are answerable to no one. The disgrace is that the people we rely on to uphold the rule of law are standing back and letting it happen.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.