Kiwis Care march
Until the 1980s street marches were largely the preserve of the political left. But in March 1981 about 50,000 people joined an anti-union march down Auckland’s Queen Street. The ‘Kiwis Care’ march was organised by Tania Harris, a 22-year-old sales representative. Ticker tape flew from shop windows and a stereo shop blasted the national anthem. Some people openly wept.
Harris had tapped into public anger over a series of strikes that had stopped international flights, sailings of Cook Strait ferries, and beer deliveries. Many people believed unions wielded too much power and were wrecking the country. Anger had been on display the day before, when up to 4,000 striking unionists marched the same route. Fist-waving shoppers and businessmen had booed, hissed and abused the strikers, calling them ‘traitors to New Zealand’ and demanding they ‘get back to work’.1
1981 Springbok tour
A few months later the South African Springbok rugby team toured New Zealand. People who opposed South Africa’s apartheid regime pledged to stop it. Chanting slogans like, ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your racist tour’, they marched to rugby grounds to hinder spectators getting to games. Tour supporters organised their own marches, with placards bearing slogans like, ‘Support the tour, punch a demonstrator’.2
Graeme Frederick was outside Eden Park on the day of the third test when police charged protesters: ‘I saw indiscriminate violence of incandescent intensity. I saw people lying on the ground with policemen standing over them, wielding batons like sledgehammers; I saw people kicked and trampled on; I saw three teenage women chased down a driveway and struck with batons. I saw people, including myself, rendered motionless by terror.’3
In the middle were the police, who increasingly attacked protesters to maintain control, with bloody results. Protesters responded by wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying home-made shields. At the last rugby test on 12 September, three protest marches converged on Auckland’s Eden Park. The game went ahead but ‘all hell broke loose’4 as protesters waged running street battles with police. Bruises and cuts soon healed, but the emotional wounds and the rift in New Zealand society lasted longer.
There were few large workers’ marches until the late 1980s. Economic reforms introduced by a Labour government – known as ‘Rogernomics’ after Minister of Finance Roger Douglas – led to a new wave of protest marches from the mid-1980s. Farmers protested against the removal of agricultural subsidies, workers protested against the loss of jobs and conditions, and the closure of post offices brought whole communities out in protest. The Labour government took no notice, nor did its National successor. In 1991 new legislation (the Employment Contracts Act) severely curtailed union power. Labour restored some union power in the early 2000s, by which time unions had moved away from street marches as a protest strategy.
Protesting against business
In 1990, a group from the Unemployed Workers’ Union stormed and briefly occupied the boardroom of the Business Roundtable in Wellington. They believed the organisation’s successful promotion of free-market policies had contributed to high levels of unemployment. Others mounted a noisy protest outside the building, partly blocking the street for three hours.
Anti-globalisation movements organised marches in Auckland to protest against meetings of the Asian Development Bank in 1995 and APEC (Asia–Pacific Economic Co-operation) in 1999. Scuffles with police made headlines.
In 2004 thousands of Māori marched to Parliament to oppose the Foreshore and Seabed Bill, protesting against the loss of a traditional right to land and resources.
March organisers are always looking at new ways to generate publicity – particularly television coverage. One development in the 2000s was the use of T-shirts with slogans, worn by marchers to provide a procession with a strong brand identity.
Back to the future?
Underlying the Destiny march was an apprehension that society was eroding conservative values. These were reflected in the march. It was led by men – women and children trailed behind – and only men spoke at the rally. This personified the church’s belief that women should be submissive to men in family and public life. (Feminists had marched along the same streets demanding equal rights with men 30 years before.)
This was pioneered by the fundamentalist Destiny church in a 2004 protest march to Parliament against the Civil Union Bill, which was to give legal recognition to gay relationships. All marchers wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Enough is enough’, which they chanted while punching the air. The uniform dress and regimented lines of marchers gave the procession a paramilitary feel. Still, the size and discipline of the march generated substantial publicity in the media and on the internet, where bloggers debated its meaning. Since then, other marches have also used T-shirts to promote their messages.
School strikes for climate
In the late 2010s and early 2020s, New Zealand secondary students became part of a worldwide movement inspired by young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Thanks to the time zone, marches and rallies in New Zealand cities were usually the first in the world.