We can make a meal of irksome politicians at one end of the protest spectrum – or leave them shell-shocked at the other

Forget about cracking eggs over the heads of politicians with whom you have a difference of opinion.  As Brits were reminded the other day, in the 17th century a mob of Dutch protesters hanged and mutilated prime minister Johan de Witt and – so it is said – ate bits of his body.

A Brexit campaigner who worked for Boris Johnson recalled this extreme form  of Dutch protest when he shared a meme joking that Theresa May should be killed and eaten, it was revealed last week. 

Economist Gerard Lyons, who backs a ‘clean’ No Deal, was rebuked after he forwarded on the ‘extreme’ message on a WhatsApp group that also contains some Tory MPs.

Mr Lyons, who was an adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London, claims he shared the message on the ‘Brexit outreach group’ by accident and said today: ‘I do not endorse it’.

The offending message was a picture of 17th-century Dutch prime minister Johan de Witt, with the caption: ‘In 1672, a mob of angry Dutch killed and ate their prime minister. Options. Just sayin’ .’

At much the same time Australian police charged a man with kicking the teenager who smashed an egg on Queensland senator Fraser Anning’s head last month.

The teenager is Will Connolly, 17, who was dubbed “Egg Boy” on social media after he was filmed cracking the egg over Senator Anning’s head while the senator spoke at a political meeting in Melbourne.

Will said the egging was in response to offensive anti-immigration comments made by Senator Anning about the Christchurch terror attack.

In response, Senator Anning swung his arm at the boy twice.

A staffer for Senator Anning then separated the pair, while the politician’s supporters tackled the teenager to the ground and a brief scuffle ensued.

Officers later interviewed and released a 20-year-old West Footscray man who will be charged on summons with assault by kicking.

Police confirmed they will not lay charges against either Will Connolly or Senator Anning over the incident but Senator Anning was censured by the Senate for his statement about the Christchurch attack.

He has refused to apologise for his comments and has defended hitting the teenager.

“He got a slap across the face, which is what his mother should have given him long ago, because he’s been misbehaving badly,” Senator Anning said after the incident.

Anning’s provocative statement and Connolly’s scrambled rejoinder raise a question that was examined on Point of Order after Green co-leader James Shaw was assaulted.

Much the same question was discussed last week by RNZ’s The Panel: are politicians fair game for assault?

Māmari Stephens, a reader in the Faculty of Law at Victoria University of Wellington and a panel member during the discussion, said she quite liked some of Connelly’s insight:

” … he’s quite a reflective chap. And he has said himself, publicly, that on reflection it wasn’t the brightest thing in the world to do.

“But there is a long tradition of throwing things at politicians who are stupid or that you object to.”

Indeed there is.  But is it a tradition to be generally admired?

Stephens said:

“Now  whether or not you think that’s acceptable – and I understand the school of thought that it’s not because it is assault –  there is something to be said about not assaulting  your public figures because there is a permission-giving there.”

Panel presenter Wallace Chapman disagreed:

“Something to be said?  Come on…”

Stephens stood by her position:

“Absolutely, If you allow that sort of low-level stuff, you know, is it the thin edge of the wedge?  But oh, gosh, did my heart sing – ha, ha – when I saw the egg go down.  So – you know…”

The Panel then recalled incidents involving dildo throwing, mud slinging and (an incident involving the Queen) a wet T-shirt.

Point of Order sought clarification from the law lecturer:  does she sanction or tolerate low-level assaults on stupid politicians and/or politicians who express objectionable opinions?

No, she doesn’t.  She replied:

Assault is assault is assault.

We do have a long series of similar assaults in NZ on political figures, such as the throwing of a dildo at Steven Joyce, mud at Don Brash, T-shirt at the Queen, manure at Nick Smith, and others I have forgotten, no doubt. Sometimes, as in the dildo case, there is something a bit funny about such an event, (and kudos to Joyce who took that in pretty good humour). But of course this kind of thing cannot be condoned because it is the thin end of the wedge, and that would then include James Shaw’s black eye, and ultimately, on that same spectrum, political assassinations such as that of Jo Cox.

So no I cannot condone such assaults simply because they are arguably ‘permission giving’ events. 

But then, in the Anning case I had a gut reaction, simply because of the loathsomeness of the man. For better or worse I was not sorry to see him egged, even though I do not condone violence or encourage such behaviour. Hence my comment on the Panel, as contradictory as that is.

Egging most certainly has a long political history. (Have a look at this article) John Prescott, Emmanuel Macron, Jeremy Corbyn, Ed Milliband, Helmut Kohl, Richard Nixon, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, David Cameron and others have all been egged in their political careers, apparently.

I would be interested to know how many of these assaults have ended up with charges being  – er, laid.

Perhaps not many. Not because such events are not assaults, they are. But as in the case of the Anning egging, I dare say police decided it was too minor to waste their time and resources in pursuing prosecution, and the age of the boy would have been a factor of course, and lack of previous convictions, same for Anning. 

Probably the key question is about harm. Perhaps one reason why such egg assaults etc are not always viewed negatively by the public is that they do not cause actual harm by way of injury.

A high-profile political protest is made, no one is hurt, no premises are torched or cars destroyed.

Others may equally say, but there is harm to the social fabric if our leaders are assaulted in such a way. Politicians have a right to be protected from such humiliating moments, we must not tolerate such actions.

But for a society to be truly open, there must be some scope for engagement between ordinary people and politicians, as we have in this country and in Australia. Where there is scope for engagement there is risk of this nature. To shut down all such opportunities for engagement simply to prevent such events would be terrible for our democracy too.

So clearly the police have to weigh their use of discretion in such cases, influenced by similar considerations. It would be interesting to see how such decisions are made.

Either way, the rest of us in the cheap seats still remain free to express our views, for which I am grateful. 

We are grateful to Stephens for taking time out from her academic workload to respond to our email and to elaborate on what she said on The Panel.

Her reply means she didn’t have to answer the last of our questions:   what other categories of person (if any) deserve being assaulted with relative impunity?

It so happens that, taking our cue from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, at Point of Order we have a little list.

At least, it started as a little list but it grows by the day…

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