Story: Public protest

In 1981 thousands of New Zealanders took to the streets to try and stop the Springbok rugby tour; in the late 1970s Ngāti Whātua occupied their former lands at Bastion Point for 507 days, until evicted by police. These are just two examples of public protests – which can be as small as a letter to a newspaper or as large as a mass march along city streets.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: SlutWalk protesters, Auckland, 2011

Story summary

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A public protest allows people to complain about something they think is wrong, and build support to change it. Most target politicians. The Bill of Rights Act guarantees the right to public protest.

Most protests are in towns and cities. In Wellington, protesters often march to Parliament and are addressed by MPs.

Letters and petitions

People write to a newspaper or a politician to highlight an issue and start debate. Groups sometimes organise letter-writing campaigns.

Petitions collect signatures to ask that a grievance be considered (usually by Parliament or a local authority).

  • The women’s suffrage petitions were signed by more than 30,000 people in the 1880s and 1890s.
  • The ‘Save Manapōuri’ petition of 1970, signed by almost 265,000 people, stopped Lake Manapōuri’s level being raised to produce hydroelectricity.

Meetings and rallies

At meetings protest leaders make speeches, and those attending may decide on resolutions and actions.

Rallies are held outside. One of the largest was in 1951, when about 17,000 people gathered in Auckland to support waterside workers during their industrial dispute.

Sit-ins and occupations

These occur when a group occupies a place to highlight a grievance. A sit-in usually takes about a day, but an occupation can last for weeks or even years.

  • In 1955 a group of women held a sit-in on the Nelson railway to protest government plans to close the line.
  • In 1977 the Ngāti Whātua tribe occupied their former land at Bastion Point, Auckland, for 507 days.
  • In 1978 Eva Rickard led a sit-in at the Raglan golf course asking that it be returned to its original Māori owners.

Pickets, blockades and boycotts

Pickets are a line of people standing in a public space. They are common in industrial disputes, often to discourage strikebreakers from entering a workplace.

Blockades involve stopping goods or people from passing.

Boycotts suspend relationships with a business or company.

Protest marches

Protest marches move along streets, with participants often carrying placards and banners. In the earliest marches, an effigy of a person was sometimes burnt. Unionists and the unemployed have often held marches.

In the 1960s and 1970s people marched against the Vietnam War and nuclear tests, and for women’s and Māori rights. The 1975 hīkoi was a Māori land march from Northland to Wellington.

Marches were common in the 1980s and early 1990s, including thousands marching against the Springbok rugby tour in 1981.

In the 2000s there were fewer marches.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Public protest', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 March 2023)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Jul 2015