Business leaders react to Jacinda Ardern being in Auckland over weekend amid Wellington protest

The chief executive of a national hospitality chain has criticised Jacinda Ardern’s “lack of leadership and presence” in Wellington over the weekend amid the ongoing protests.

As protests in Parliament drag on into the seventh day and scenes escalate, businesses continue to pay the price. The protests have led to business closures all over the capital.

Some hospitality venues have been forced to temporarily close, while the majority of businesses in Wellington CBD face indirect impacts as people continue to steer clear of the area and customers to sell to remain few. Some businesses have suffered verbal abuse at the hands of the protesters.

Prime Minister Ardern left Wellington over the weekend, amid the ongoing protests.

She was, however, at Parliament all of last week and returned to the Beehive today.

Previously, Ardern also drew criticism for her lack of presence during the Auckland lockdown.

Last year, she spent just one day in Auckland, in South Auckland, during lockdown amid growing frustration from the business community. The same sentiment seems to be present now, with businesses now questioning why she was not in Wellington over the weekend in their current time of need.

A Wellington-based hospitality boss, who wished to remain anonymous due to polarisation and the fear of divided views impacting trade, said the Prime Minister needed to “front up” and acknowledge the protesters to minimise the disruption.

The South African-born man, who stressed he did not agree with the thinking of the protesters, said once the protesters had felt like they had been heard by the Government then they would likely move on.

The Prime Minister, however, had a track record to not be where the drama was, and her silence on the matter was only adding fuel to the fire.

“As a leader I believe you need to be where the problems are – when the protesters came through the first time, the second time, even now I go around to my cafes and make sure my team are OK, and if there’s an issue like there was right at the beginning when Vaccine Passes came in I’m there I can deal with it and shield my staff from it, because I’m the leader and I need to show that.

“Unfortunately, I think Jacinda is a sympathetic leader when there is nothing to do with her involved like with the Christchurch shootings, White Island tragedies, very quick to get on a plane, get there and sympathise, however the same approach should be taken when things aren’t going as well as they are at the moment.”

Earlier this morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s message to the protesters today was: “Go home – and take your children.”

Those gathered were an “imported form of protest” with a mix of Trump flags, Canadian flags and abusing members of the public for wearing a mask, Ardern told RNZ.

“We all want them to leave,” she said.

Ardern told AM she did not approve of the tactics they had seen from the protesters.

“What we have seen out there seems much more anti-vaccination than anything else.”

Some of the behaviour she had seen was “pure misinformation around the role of vaccines”.

“We’ve seen some horrific behaviour down here.”

The hospitality boss said the Government need to acknowledge the protesters, to acknowledge freedom of speech and show freedom of speech tolerance.

“What I’m seeing here at the moment is [the Government] in their wisdom they refuse to talk to them, they refuse to even acknowledge them and only interact with sprinklers and music. I don’t support the views that they have but I think we all have freedom to express our views, and by sending the police in with batons and threatening that the army is coming in, things like that only escalates it, and what I can see happening is more and more people are going to come in and support [the protesters] unfortunately. Instead of it being de-escalated, by the action they are taking is escalating it.

“My view is Jacinda, Trevor and Grant should walk down there, they should have a police escort, and go and talk to them. Take their views and at least they will feel they have been heard. At the moment they don’t feel they are heard at all – and that’s a problem for us.

“I don’t think the Government are handling it in a way to de-escalate it.”

He said Speaker Trevor Mallard’s actions were goading protesters and making the situation worse.

Michael Barnett, chief executive of the Auckland Business Chamber of Commerce, said the impacts businesses were facing as no fault of their own was unfortunate given all the other disruption brought about the pandemic that they were already facing.

Barnett said he would like to see would you like to see an environment where protesters were allowed their right to protest but without imposing hardship on others. This needed to be said, he said.

“After two years of Covid frustration and in an environment where Wellington businesses were planning for recovery they have had yet another barrier to stall that recovery,” Barnett told the Herald.

“The protest has its place but for vehicles to be parked illegally and not moved by authorities is an indictment on both the police and local authority. Local businesses need the protection of police and security – they have as many rights as the protesters.”

Barnett, like other business leaders, said he believed Mallard “had baited protesters” and that the House needed to “put him in his place”.

Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said the association continued to suffer verbal abuse at the hands of the protesters. She said the Government needed to sort the situation as soon as possible for the sake of businesses at the very least.

“Unfortunately for city centre businesses, the protesters seem to show no sign of leaving. I think the Government owes it to the local business community to try to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

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