(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 17.)
I can’t help wondering whether the wrong person was on trial in the Whanganui District Court last week.
The name on the charge sheet was that of Kerry James “Chester” Borrows, who was tried on a charge of careless driving causing injury. But it seems to me there were other charges that could equally have been brought as a result of an incident that occurred during an anti-TPP protest in March last year – only not against Borrows.
For example, there’s a charge of disorderly behaviour and another of obstructing a public way.
I’m not a lawyer, but it’s surely not too much of a stretch to argue that a person deliberately stopping someone else going about their lawful business is acting contrary to public order, which is how my dictionary defines disorderly behaviour.
As for an alternative charge of obstructing a public way, anyone watching the TV news last week, and seeing exactly what happened in Whanganui on March 22 2016, could form their own conclusions.
Borrows, the National MP for Whanganui, was driving out the entrance of a motor inn with cabinet minister Paula Bennett in the front passenger seat. Several protesters were standing by the gate holding placards.
The TV camera showed two women stepping out into the path of the approaching car with the apparent intention of forcing it to stop. At least two police officers were standing by, but did nothing to intervene.
The car was moving very slowly. There was some dispute in court as to whether it actually stopped at one point, but it was certainly moving when it came into contact with the two women.
A police witness estimated the car’s speed as 1kmh – far slower than walking speed. Borrows testified that he feathered his brakes, as he was trained to do in similar situations during his 24 years as a police officer.
In any event, the protesters had ample time to get out of the way. They chose not to.
Let me repeat: they chose not to. They seemed to think their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership gave them the moral right to prevent two elected public officials going about their lawful business.
Predictably enough, the vehicle nosed into them. One of the women rather theatrically testified that she thought: “Oh my god, you’re going under, girl.” At this point the police on the scene were roused from their torpor and belatedly moved the women out of the way
It looked to me as if the protesters were playing a game of chicken. Even if they weren’t exactly willing the car to hit them, they seemed to be at least daring it to happen.
That impression was reinforced when one of them, having been pulled clear, shrieked in the direction of the TV crew: “Did anyone get that on camera?”
You could be excused for wondering whether she had set the situation up for exactly that purpose. The idea of public protests, after all, is to get noticed – and what better way to attract public attention than by being hit by a car driven by a government MP and carrying a high-profile minister?
You can imagine the posts on social media that would have followed: “Frail elderly woman mowed down in callous act of Tory brutality.”
Borrows testified that the reason he didn’t come to a complete halt was that a male protester at the scene had earlier made threats against Bennett on Facebook. To be precise, the protester had written: “See you shortly, bitch”, which surely tells you something about the calibre of some anti-TPP protesters.
He had also a posted a picture of a dildo with Bennett’s name on it. Borrows testified that he thought it was a wooden dildo which, if thrown at Bennett – as had happened to her fellow minister Steven Joyce at Waitangi only weeks before – could have done damage.
In acquitting Borrows, the judge cited the dildo threat as an extenuating factor. She accepted that he had valid reason to be concerned about Bennett’s comfort, if not safety.
So Borrows got off. But why was he prosecuted in the first place? I’ve seen it suggested that the police proceeded with the charge against him for fear that they might otherwise be seen as going soft on a former cop – hardly a compelling reason.
And why did the police take no action against the protesters, whose injuries (they were both treated for soft tissue damage) were the direct result of their own provocative and arguably unlawful behaviour? If a case could be made against Borrows for careless driving, they should surely have also been charged for their own contributory role.
Come to that, why did the officers on the scene not step in earlier to prevent the pantomime? Have they been disciplined or reprimanded?
In the end, the outcome was the right one. But it should never have come to that point, and Borrows can hardly be blamed for sounding bitter about his former colleagues in uniform.