Unsanctioned trespass breeds lawlessness

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
25 February, 2022

Tolerance for legitimate protest is one thing. The current illegal occupation of public and private property around Parliament is another.

The police depend on public support. The public undermines respect for the law when it does not support police actions to enforce the law. Governments can similarly undermine the rule of law.

The police got hung out to dry for trying to enforce the Terrorism Suppression Act in 2007. In 2020, the government rewarded the illegal occupation of private land at Ihumātao.

Much is at stake. Without good, well-enforced laws, some will take whatever they can get away with. In the extreme, as 17th century UK philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

So what are good laws? Good laws protect individual life and liberty, and the public peace.

Laws against trespassing are as important for human dignity as are laws ensuring we keep our unwanted hands to ourselves.

Security in one’s property is also essential for prosperity. Why work if you cannot own what you earn?

English 19th century philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham was not out of line with history when he wrote that the law that gives security to property is “the noblest triumph of humanity over itself”.

Governments that enforce good laws and eschew bad ones are the ideal. We are not seeing enough of either aspect. Many complaints are valid, and should be heard.

Governments must also be subject to the law. Only an independent judiciary can properly assess this. Only an independent Police Commissioner can decide to prosecute a prime minister, should the need arise. (As is in prospect now in the UK.)

One deeply undemocratic and uncivil aspect of the current New Zealand situation is the “we will occupy until our demands are met” mindset. The current occupations at Parliament and Shelly Bay follow the Ihumātao success. Tolerance for illegal road closures similarly encourages more of the same.

The more the public tolerates illegal trespassing, and governments reward it, the more of it we will see and the harder it becomes for the police to enforce the law of the land.

In this weakened situation, any Police Commissioner must hesitate over enforcement options. Yet hesitancy fosters lawlessness.

We, the public, reap what we sow. To tolerate trespass in the small is to invite it at large.

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