James Shaw, who is also the joint leader of the Greens party, was outside the Botanic Gardens in the capital Wellington at 7.30am on Thursday when he was assaulted by an unknown man.
A spokesperson for the Green party said Shaw was grabbed and punched in the face, in an unprovoked attack that has shocked MPs and the wider public. The attacker referred to Shaw by name.
The incident prompted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to warn that the easy accessibility of politicians in New Zealand should not be taken for granted.
Shaw was under observation in hospital, where he was described by the Green party spokesperson as “very shaken”, a sentiment shared by the political community.
Senior Sergeant Matthew Morris of New Zealand police said a 47-year-old man had been arrested over the attack.
Ardern said the incident was “an incredibly unprovoked and surprising thing to happen”.
“We have an environment in New Zealand where politicians are accessible – and that’s something we should feel proud of. We are after all, here to serve people. But today’s events really show we cannot take that for granted,” Ardern said.
“I think all of us will probably be united in wanting to ensure we have the kind of political environment where everyone can hold their views, but they can do that safely.”
“When you go into politics in New Zealand you just don’t expect these things to happen, and I know it will be especially challenging for loved ones.”
The incident, which took place in an inner-city suburb of Wellington, has shocked New Zealanders.
“This is outrageous behaviour and if undertaken by a Wellingtonian, shameful,” wrote the city’s mayor Justin Lester on Twitter.
“Elected representatives of all hues show courage to represent New Zealanders & we are lucky to have unparalleled access to them. This is a sad day for democracy. Arohanui James.”
The Green party spokesman said the party was now taking advice from parliamentary security on whether protection for their MPs needed to be increased in the wake of the attack. “There is nothing to suggest this had anything to do with the Green party or James’s work … but this person did know who James was and did use his name.”
Sociologist and criminal justice expert Jarrod Gilbert from the University of Canterbury was one among many who viewed the attack as politically motived. “One of the greatest things about New Zealand is the open access we enjoy to politicians,” Gilbert tweeted. “Today’s attack isn’t just an assault on James Shaw, it’s an assault on our democracy.”
Acts of violence against politicians are extremely rare in New Zealand, and most politicians move freely without bodyguards or security. Only the prime minister or acting prime minister are guarded around the clock by the Diplomatic Protection Service.
“This is one of those times when politicians unite,” Paula Bennett, deputy leader of the opposition National party, tweeted. “Be well James. No form of violence is ok. Ever.”
More about: #NewZealand