The purpose of protest: In defence of Russel Norman

The debate over the Green party co-leader's protest in front of Xi Jinping is drawing out all kinds of criticisms, but surely the thing to remember is that protest is designed to confront

What is the purpose of protest? It's one of the core questions to ask when we're debating the rights and wrongs of Russel Norman's waving the Tibetan flag at the Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping.

The public mood, I think, was initially horrified that Chinese security guards manhandled a member of the New Zealand parliament exercising free speech. But the government has tried to turn that around, arguing that Dr Norman's protest was calculated to offend and therefore unworthy of an MP.

Prime Minister John Key has gone so far as to ring Mr Xi to apologise and convey "his regret". So just what does he regret? And should we share that regret?

The arguments go that Dr Norman was rude to a guest, was not diplomatic enough and was, in short, too in Mr Xi's face.

But surely the point of protest is to provoke, to confront and to agitate. The goal is be so confronting as to affect change. That's what marks protest as a tactic different from diplomacy or negotiation. To ask a protester to stop being confrontational is to ask them to stop protesting, and protesting is our right.

As Dr Martin Luther King Jr. wrote during the Birmingham campaign in 1963, not long before he gave his 'I have a dream' speech in Washington, "The purpose of ... direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation".

Norman's hope is that if enough people around the world put pressure on the Chinese government over Tibet, then it will be forced to negotiate. Regardless of whether you agree with his cause and if you think his hope is a forlorn one, I don't see how he acted improperly. His protest, remember, was non-violent and legal.


Yet his critics have come up with a series of rhetorical sticks to beat him with. So let's run through them.

First, he was only able to stand on parliament's steps because he is an MP and so Foreign Minister Murray McCully and others have argued that he abused his parliamentry privilege. But where else should an MP protest? Surely parliament is an MP's turangawaewae; their place to stand. It seems to be that's exactly the place he should protest. Where would be preferable? On the street outside Mr Xi's hotel? At the airport?

Then there's the argument that this protest was downright rude. Mr Xi, after all, is a visiting dignitary. But again, being rude is the very point of protest. Just ask Tame Iti. Norman, I'm sure, would argue that China's treatment of Tibet is much ruder than his flag waving. And again, you don't have to agree with that to defend his right to make the claim.

Tied up in that argument is the point that China is a world power, one of our largest export markets, and as a minnow country it is in our national interests to play by their rules. The suggestion is that because they helped us trade our way through the global recession we should somehow tug our forlock in gratitude.

That simply isn't the New Zealand way. Many of our pakeha forebears came here so they didn't have to cow-tow to the powerful; Maori have spent half a dozen generations trying to change the rules of the game here.

China's might should have nothing to do with our principles as New Zealand citizens. Indeed, I'd turn the question around – would the PM have picked up the phone to apologise personally to the vice president of Mali or Estonia? We there's any principle in our politics, he should treat the mighty and weak with equal respect or condemnation.

And y'know what? The simple reality is that the memory of one minor party leader waving a flag is not going to harm New Zealand's trade relationship with China; they won't stop buying our milk or coming here on holidays. China will do any deal that is in its own national interests tomorrow and next week and next year, just as it would have last week.

China will pay much closer attention to the Crafar farms bid, for example, than to Norman and his flag.

One of the most twee lines has been to say that with the right of free speech comes responsibility. But what was Norman's irrespomsibility? He did not descend to personal abuse; his was a statement of principle and politics.

Get too caught up on responsibility and you risk becoming to afraid to exercise the right. I'd argue that free speech is like a muscle – unless you use it, even stretch it to its limit sometimes, you can take it for granted.

Perhaps the most ridiculous argument I've seen comes from the typically-sensible Colin Espiner, who has written that as an MP he should put aside any crusading zeal. Or as Espiner puts it, "it's not appropriate for a politician to be a protester".

Are you kidding? Perhaps you can make that case for ministers, but not opposition MPs. What drives people into politics except a passion to affect change? Why on earth shouldn't our public representatives represent public views via protest? Do we merely want a parliament full of managers? Is Aung San Suu Kyi not a protester and a politician?

Good grief. It's closer to the truth to say that politicians at heart are all protesters. Norman is not a diplomat, his job is to represent the people who voted for him.

I make no comment about China's policy regarding Tibet, in part because I don't feel sufficiently expert, but mostly because it's irrelevant to any discussion of Norman's protest. I'm also not commenting on the similarities and differences between Norman's protest and Rod Donald's because that's a different question.

My simple point is that a legal protest was made in a country with a proud history of protest. Kate Sheppard, Te Whiti, the anti-Springbok crowds and others all caused offense to make their case. Norman has every right to make his case as well.