WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — About 2,000 protesters upset with the government's pandemic response converged Tuesday on New Zealand's Parliament — but there was no repeat of the occupation six months ago in which protesters camped on Parliament grounds for more than three weeks.
Many of the protesters said they had no intention of trying to stay. And police ensured a repeat was unlikely by closing streets, erecting barricades and banning protesters from bringing structures onto Parliament's grounds.
The previous protest created significant disruptions in the capital and ended in chaos as retreating protesters set fire to tents and hurled rocks at police.
This time there was also a counter-protest, with several hundred people gathering in front of Parliament as the main march entered the grounds. The two sides shouted insults but a line of police officers kept them physically separated.
The earlier protest had been more sharply focused on opposition to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
New Zealand's government initially required that health workers, teachers, police, firefighters and soldiers get vaccinated. But it has since removed most of those mandates, with the exception of health workers and some others. It has also removed requirements that people be vaccinated to visit stores and bars.
Tuesday's protest was as much about lingering discontentment over the government's handling of the crisis as it was about current rules, including a requirement that people wear masks in stores.
Protester Carmen Page said people who hadn't been vaccinated face ongoing discrimination and people lost their jobs and homes as a result of the mandates, which she said amounted to government overreach.
“We’re not here to be controlled,” Page said. “We just want to live our lives freely. We want to work where we want to work, without discrimination.”
At the counter-protest, Lynne Maugham said she and her husband had extended a stay in the capital to attend.
“I’ve got nothing but respect for the mandates, for the vaccinations, for the way the health providers have handled the whole thing,” she said.
Maugham said the government hadn’t done everything perfectly but had done a good job overall. “There’s no blueprint for handling a pandemic,” she said.
Like many of the protesters opposing mandates and other government's actions, Mania Hungahunga was part of a group called The Freedom & Rights Coalition and a member of the Christian fundamentalist Destiny Church.
Hungahunga said every New Zealander had been negatively impacted by the mandates. He said he'd traveled from Auckland to protest but wasn't planning an occupation.
“We're just here for the day, a peaceful day, just to get our message through to the public and the people of Wellington,” he said.
Many of the protesters said they were hoping that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would get voted out in next year's election. Protest leader Brian Tamaki told the crowd he was starting a new political party to contest the election.
Tamaki and his wife, Hannah Tamaki, founded the Destiny Church, which they say is the largest Māori and Pacific Island church movement in New Zealand.
Ardern was first elected prime minister in 2017 and her initial pandemic response proved enormously popular. Her liberal Labour Party won re-election in 2020 in a landslide of historic proportions.
But as the pandemic dragged on and the country faced new problems, including inflation, Ardern's popularity has waned. Recent opinion polls have put the conservative opposition National Party ahead of Labour.
Authorities said there were no initial reports of violence or other problems at the protests.