How an apolitical suburban mum came to protest.
Liana Kelly is standing in the middle of Queen St, in Auckland. She’s surrounded by a couple thousand boisterous people who are gradually nudging each other towards the centre of the road.
“Let’s try to keep to the edge,” she says anxiously, holding a sky-blue banner with colourful letters that spell out “South Islanders say TPPA No Way”.
Liana had flown up from Dunedin just two days before. She’d come for the protest against the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. And she was nervous.
She was nervous because, despite helping organise a year’s worth of anti-TPP protests down south, she’s not used to protests quite as large or unwieldy as this one. And, in any case, she’s sort of new to this.
Liana says her transformation from apolitical suburban mum to TPP activist started eight years ago, at age 43, when her eldest son died.
“And as any parent who’s been through that knows, you change,” Liana says. “You change a lot.”
Until then Liana says she didn’t question much, politically. Aside from going to one anti-nuclear protest when she was a teenager, she says she wasn’t really politically engaged. She’d sign a couple of petitions, maybe, she says. That was it.
Then, in 2011, Liana lived through another life-altering event: the Christchurch earthquakes. The quakes had a big impact on her, too, she says. It made her think about what was important to her, and what was trivial. It made her question things she’d taken for granted.
Still, throughout all of this, Liana’s political behaviour didn’t change much, not on the surface at least. In fact, she voted National in 2008. And in 2011, she winces: “I hate to say it, I did vote for [Key] again.”
There wasn’t a strong alternative, she says. But after that election, Liana started to lose faith. She’d voted against asset sales in the (admittedly non-binding) referendum, but the Government had gone through with it anyway.
When Liana first heard about the TPP in 2014, after six years of emotional upheaval, she was ready to be sceptical. She read up a bit more. She read TPP analysis from economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, Liana says proudly. From “reputable newspapers” like the New York Times and the Guardian.
Liana still didn’t like the sound of it. Then, she saw a notice in the paper: anti-TPP activists were having a meeting. She decided to go.
After that first meeting, Liana went to one protest, and then another. She started helping to organise them. She would hold the front banner at protests – very important for crowd control, she says. She would stay behind to help clean up afterwards.
At first, Liana says, she was timid. If people asked her about the TPP, she says, “I would just say ‘go Google’.” Not anymore. Now, she’s always selling.
Conversations with Liana often take an abrupt right-hand turn towards the TPP. Like, for example, in the middle of answering a question about why she doesn’t support National anymore.
“[National] took a lot of things to their own agenda – not necessarily following public will. And, of course, with the TPPA, we’ve been trying to send a strong message, that there are a lot of us that are opposed to it, and a lot of people who haven’t made up their mind, but that want to know more,” she says.
Talking about the TPP, Liana’s comfortable. But in the activist scene – not so much. At least, not yet.
A few hours before Liana joined the marchers with her banner, there was another protest targeting Sky City, where the deal was actually being signed.
The protesters shouted down the police officers guarding the doors. They blockaded the streets surrounding the casino and convention centre, and blocked motorway access to central city, effectively shutting down Auckland for most of the day.
Some activists went to both protests. Liana didn’t. She wanted to save her energy for the march, she said. And, throughout that day in Auckland, Liana avoided Sky City. She said she didn’t want to get caught up in whatever was happening there.
Liana’s not alone. Just before the morning protest that day, there was a kerfuffle at the front of the march. One of the protesters took the megaphone - an older, Māori guy. Blockading Sky City wasn’t the kaupapa for the protest he’d signed up for, he told the crowd. He asked everyone to step to the side, and wait for the midday march. The one Liana went to.
Of course, the blockade went ahead. They didn’t wait. Still, the confrontation revealed a bubbling tension in the anti-TPP movement between activists who want to escalate, and those who don’t. Liana’s aware of the dichotomy. She knows that she’s in the second camp.
“There was a bit of tension between the two groups,” Liana admits. She says she was nervous about what might happen, and she was relieved there wasn’t any violence.
“In the end,” she says, “it all worked beautifully together.”
The TPP was signed in Auckland that day. But the fight’s not over for Liana. She takes every opportunity to remind the people around her that the deal hasn’t been ratified – only signed – and ratification might be months or years away. Once the TPP fight is finally over, though, Liana’s not sure if she’ll continue on with activism. She might give it up, she says.
“There’s a little part of me that would just like to withdraw back to a quiet, boring, life … Whether I do continue on or not – perhaps someone will have to ask me in a year’s time.” She pauses. “But maybe.”
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Video includes the song Pink Blossoms by Podington Bear.