People Power: Radical photographer, John Miller, took this photograph of people gathering for an anti-Vietnam War protest march down Queen Street on Bastille Day 1972. Forty years later another, much smaller, crowd gathered to protest against the partial sale of state assets. One of the saddest themes of the politics of the past four decades has been the steady demobilisation of the citizenry. In 2012, the demonstrators' cries of "Power to the People!" have taken on an increasingly hollow ring.
JOHN MILLER has been taking photographs of demonstrations for more than forty years. On Saturday, as the numbers slowly built for Auckland’s “Aotearoa is NOT for Sale” protest march up Queen Street, we ran into each other in Queen Elizabeth Square. With a wry grin, John handed me a photograph he’d taken of demonstrators at the same assembly point, on the same date, exactly forty years ago – 14 July 1972.
The cause that day was, as so many causes were in the 1960s and 70s, someone else’s. Though American troops were being pulled out of Vietnam as fast as President Nixon dared, the war in Indo-China rumbled on, with New Zealand, at least nominally, a part of it. The thousands of young faces in John’s photograph reflected their generation’s willingness to stand up and be counted as opponents of the morally insupportable contest between a nation of rice farmers and the most destructive military machine the world had ever seen.
“That one was clearly a lot bigger than this one’s going to be”, I commented, looking around the little square and registering how empty it was. Others seemed to share my sense of embarrassment at the low turnout, self-consciously lining the sides of the square. The only people willing to occupy its empty space were a brave band of young Chinese Christians. They held placards saying “Jesus Loves You” and sang hymns to the demonstrators.
“We could certainly use a little divine support!” I thought to myself as John hurried off to share his historical treasure with the other grizzled veterans of protests-gone-by. The first of the “Aotearoa is NOT for Sale” protests, on 28 April, had attracted up to 8,000 people, but it was already clear that this one wasn’t going to be even half that size.
I had feared it would be so. The law enabling the partial sale of the state-owned energy generators has been passed (albeit by a single vote) and the Government’s $120 million promotional effort is about to begin. Many New Zealanders, though deeply opposed to the sale of Mighty River Power, must’ve heard about Saturday’s protests and asked themselves: “What’s the point?”
On the other hand, the country’s attention had been focused for a whole week on the Maori Council’s bid to convince the Waitangi Tribunal that the sale of the hydro-electricity SOEs should be postponed until the vexing question of who does, and who does not, hold a proprietary interest in the water that spins their humming turbines is resolved. It was just possible that people might reconsider their decision that partial asset sales are now a “done deal” – and re-join the protest movement.
It was a false hope. While Maori are obviously concerned to secure a seat at the table when it comes to dividing up the spoils of the partial privatisation process, it is by no means clear that Maoridom as a whole is opposed to the sale of state assets per se. There was encouraging testimony at the Waitangi Tribunal hearings from individual Maori hapu who promised to act as the kaitiaki – guardians – of New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and streams. But, representatives of the much more powerful Iwi Leaders Group spoke elsewhere (and approvingly) of “market mechanisms”, “reserved share-holdings” and “royalties”.
There are times when your enemy’s enemy is not your friend.
And so the drums started beating, the marchers chanted “Power to the People!”, and the ragged column of 2,500 to 3,000 souls began it’s slow trudge up Queen Street. I looked around me and saw the multi-coloured union and political party flags fluttering, and the hand-painted banners bobbing up and down. (The best I saw read: “New Zealand: 51 percent pure – 49 percent for sale.”). “Who’s got the power?” Someone bellowed. “We’ve got the power!” the marchers bellowed back.
I lifted up my eyes and the gleaming towers of the banks and finance houses seemed to lunge towards me: BNZ, AXA, Deloittes, ANZ, National Bank: giants of glass and steel standing like sentinels along the length of Queen Street. I wondered how impressive we looked from those top floors. Did the financiers, looking down, see a torrent of angry humanity pouring through that narrow canyon like a river in flood? Or did they see a line of scurrying ants: too tiny and remote to merit more than a dismissive sneer?
A Question Of Perspective: A raging human torrent - or scurrying ants?
At the end, as always, there were speeches and resolutions. Representatives from the Opposition parties spoke: Phil Twyford for Labour (last time it was David Shearer) Julie Anne Genter and Russel Norman for the Greens. I listened carefully, but only John Minto, speaking for the Mana Party, was willing to make the one political commitment capable of worrying the watchers in those glass towers:
“If elected,” said Mr Minto, “we will renationalise any asset that has been sold, and deduct any dividends paid from the purchasers’ compensation.”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 July 2012.