Valerie Morse has been given many labels over the past few years, from “degenerate” to “rent-a-protester”. Involved in numerous left-wing causes, she’s infamous for protesting naked against genetic engineering, shouting down the United States ambassador to New Zealand at a speech, and interrupting Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast as she addressed a crowd at Bike to Work Day last year. Her latest bout of media attention came a few weeks ago, after she was arrested for offensive behaviour during a protest at the Wellington ANZAC Day dawn service. In an action condemned by politicians from all sides of the spectrum, Morse and other protesters from the organisation Peace Action Wellington reportedly tried to disrupt the service using plastic horns. The protest cuminated in Morse allegedly burning a New Zealand flag. Morse, along with another member of Peace Action Wellington, has been remanded and will appear in court again later this month.
Peace Action Wellington say the protest was to draw attention to the deployment of New Zealand troops overseas, while veterans found it repugnant. One Vietnam veteran, Blue Caldwell, told the Christchurch newspaper The Press, in quite strong terms, that “anybody who desecrates the flag, regardless of what country, to me, they should be shot”. Other media outlets were also full of veterans, politicians and others registering their disgust at the protest. Why, then, would Peace Action Wellington undertake an action that was unlikely to do them any favours – especially given the cultural and historical importance of ANZAC Day. Salient spoke to Morse to find out.
Can you tell me about the motivations for the protest on ANZAC Day?
The motivations for the protest on ANZAC Day was to highlight New Zealand’s current involvement in wars around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, Timor Leste and in the Solomon Islands.
What is PAW’s issue with New Zealand troops being in those countries, when surely they’re there in a peace keeping role?
I would certainly think that that’s what the government would like people to believe. However, that’s not the particular view that Peace Action Wellington takes, and I think that it’s important to recognise that New Zealand troops are not neutral troops. In Afghanistan in particular, NZ troops serve under the overall command of the US military. These men and women are armed soldiers, so they are not a neutral force. It’s important to keep in mind that on the one hand, I don’t want to denigrate and dismiss some of the things those people may be doing that may be beneficial, but I believe that those are quite aside from the agenda that those troops are serving, which is an economic and political agenda.
In the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste, New Zealand troops are under Australian oversight, do you have the same problem with that?
Some of the issues are similar in the Solomon Islands and in Timor Leste. Those situations are quite complex, so I don’t want to suggest that there are easy answers. But in both cases New Zealand is in fact propping up one particular side of a political argument, and not allowing those countries to determine their own future. Australia is pretty clearly serving an economic agenda in both of those countries. They’ve had long standing arguments with Timor Leste over the gas reserves in the Timor Sea, and in the Solomon Islands the invasion was largely precipitated by an Australian strategic policy institute report outlining how much money Australian multinational corporations were losing over the gold ridge mines.
But surely in those two cases, New Zealand intervention is stopping people from killing each other?
Seeming to stop something from happening in that moment in time doesn’t necessarily stop those things from happening over and over and over again. Yes, you can have peace at the barrel of a gun, but unless you have peace with justice and self-determination, and allow people to exist in a way where they feel they have had justice done, they can determine their own future, you will never have a just situation, you will never have peace. Those are the things that are happening in places like the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste. What we need to do is to perhaps let them sort out their own lives and go from there. I’m not suggesting that we should simply say, “oh forget about them”, because at the heart of it, a lot of things that are done in this country are done with the best of intentions.
So what is Peace Action Wellington calling for? Do you want the troops to leave?
What we want is for a fundamental reassessment of the nature of defence in this country. It’s really important that across New Zealand society that we begin to examine where we see our role in the world, because at the moment we are very much on the side of the Americans in a lot of these countries. Quite frankly, I think that’s a dangerous place for us to be. That comes from history and from cultural affinity. We need to sit back and say: is this actually what side we want to be on? Do we actually want to be on anyone’s side? If you read the NZ defence force annual report, you’ll see the amount of work they do actually defending NZ is really really quite small. It takes up about a paragraph in the annual report.
There was massive public outrage in response to the protest. Do you think that’s fair?
It’s unfortunate that some of the media coverage was actually just out and out erroneous. We have actually filed complaints with the Broadcasting Standards Authority because some of the TV coverage was actually completely factually incorrect and frankly just lies. Our protest was in no way directed at war veterans, but to highlight the hypocrisy of a government saying ‘lest we forget’ and ‘never again’, meanwhile engaging in the same kinds of overseas military involvement that we were doing in the First World War. It’s an interesting thing that a lot of people have said ANZAC is a sacred day, it’s a ceremonial day, it’s not a day for protests. In fact, ANZAC is a supremely political day. There are members of the government, there are members of the opposition, and in fact there was a bit of a bun fight over lesser parties being able to speak on ANZAC Day. So, to suggest that it’s not a political day to me is really quite ridiculous. It’s a completely political day, and it is an appropriate day for protest.
But surely ANZAC Day is primarily a day for remembering the victims of war?
Remembering which victims of which war?
Is it about remembering the soldiers at Gallipoli who were sent to their slaughter for no purpose whatsoever? We’re not remembering the victims of, for example, the wars of the 1840s here in Aotearoa, we’re not remembering the wars in the Taranaki, we’re not remembering the innocent civilians who died at the barrel of the gun by both Allied and Axis forces in the First World War, we’re not remembering all the war dead. It’s a very selective memory.
Many bloggers have highlighted, mostly with outrage, the fact that an American was burning the New Zealand flag. What would be your response to that?
I was born in Takapuna, I lived in Wellington for 10 years, and I have a New Zealand passport. So at what point do I become a New Zealander? It’s totally and completely irrelevant.
Arguably, though, with PAW appearing so radical in the press you’re shooting yourself in the foot? People can put you in a corner and dismiss you as crazy hippies.
We have had protests at ANZAC Day for the past three years, and typically we have attended the 10 o’clock wreath laying ceremony, and we’ve laid a wreath. We have had no discussion, there’s been no coverage in the media, there has been no societal discussion about ANZAC Day as a result of anything we’ve done. So frankly we felt that it was necessary to make that statement. Of course there are people who are going to say “you guys have gone too far,” but there are also people who are going to say “good on you for challenging this construct that we have.” We’ve had both, probably in equal measure. My heart and my passion is really about stopping wars and stopping the horrors that are associated with wars. I suppose the exploitation and domination of people. I want to see a world free of violence and war.
Which is not something that many people would necessarily disagree with, although a lot of people have certainly disagreed with the methods you used to make that point.
There’s a whole range of views out there. For me, historically, if we look back at people who are interested in stopping war, the only way we can stop war is by ceasing to participate in wars of domination and coercion. People will say we were fighting for our freedom, we were fighting against fascism in the Second World War, but to me it’s like you cannot pick World War Two out of the air, because World War Two was a result of things that happened in the First World War that made that historical situation come to pass. It’s really oversimplifying to say we need to simply intervene and stop this from happening.