Letter writing is a simple form of public protest. A letter to a newspaper editor or a politician is an easy way for an individual to highlight an issue and initiate public debate. In January 1841, Wellingtonian A. W. Shand wrote to a local newspaper protesting about the New Zealand Company’s land sales process, sparking letters for and against his view. Protest groups sometimes initiate letter-writing campaigns in which people are encouraged to send letters or emails to the media and decision-makers. Some groups organise form letters or emails that individuals can sign; others prefer supporters to compose their own letters, as these look less staged.
A 1970 survey of 109 Christchurch people who had signed a petition found that 49% felt their petitions had achieved something, another 30% were not sure, and 21% felt their petitions had not achieved anything. The survey concluded that the public believed petitions were an effective way to communicate to Parliament.
Petitions are a formal request for a higher authority to consider a grievance. Signatures are collected by street canvassers or through community networks. In the 21st century, online petitions made the collection process easier. Petitions are then collated and presented to the authority (usually Parliament or a body) for consideration. If the petition gains significant numerical support, politicians are more likely to address its concerns. Major petitions have included:
- the 1880s and 1890s suffrage petitions – signed by over 30,000 people and important in persuading Parliament to grant women the vote in 1893
- the 264,907-signature ‘Save Manapōuri’ petition of 1970 – instrumental in reversing government plans to raise Lake Manapōuri’s water level for a hydroelectric dam
- the 581,278 signature petition opposing the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1986 – the largest petition ever presented to Parliament, this was unsuccessful.
Many petitions fail in their aim. During the 19th and 20th centuries Māori often used petitions to protest against the alienation of their land and the withdrawal of fishing and other customary rights. From 1882, representatives travelled to London to present their petitions to the British Crown (their Treaty of Waitangi partner). Invariably these were referred back to the New Zealand government, which did not give them a sympathetic hearing.
Petitions and Parliament
Anyone can petition New Zealand’s Parliament to ask it to act on a legal or public policy matter or to right a community or private wrong. The petition must be signed by at least one person and can only be presented to Parliament once other statutory remedies have been exhausted. When a petition is ready, it is delivered to the clerk of the House of Representatives by a supportive MP. It is then presented to the House and given to the relevant select committee. The committee can seek further submissions and will issue a report on the petition with, or without, recommendations to the government. The government then has 90 days to report on what, if any, action it will take.
A 1909 meeting to protest the government’s offer of a warship to the Royal Navy filled Christchurch’s Lyceum theatre, with a further 2,000 people turned away. A newspaper reported that a ‘very large section of the audience was antagonistic to the protest and all the speakers were interrupted by the singing of “Rule Britannia” and “Red, White and Blue.”’ MP Thomas Taylor moved a motion against the government’s action, which was seconded and carried. ‘A pandemonium ensued and hooting followed,’ said the paper.1 (The warship, HMS New Zealand, was paid for by the dominion.)
Protest meetings are typically held in public halls or theatres. In a series of speeches, protest leaders outline the grievance and suggest solutions. The meeting may also hear divergent views from the ‘floor’ (audience). Sometimes songs and anthems are sung to rouse the audience. Towards the meeting’s end, leaders will formulate resolutions that summarise the gathering’s view and the action to be taken to make progress on the issue. Usually these are put to the meeting to gain its support.
Rallies are held outside in public spaces such as parks and squares. Speakers will address the assembled crowd to explain the protest. The speeches may be preceded or followed by songs, anthems and chants. One of the largest rallies occurred during the 1951 waterfront industrial dispute, when on 3 June up to 17,000 people gathered in Auckland’s Domain to support the wharfies (waterside workers). Often rallies are held at the beginning or end of protest marches to fire up participants.