'I'll keep turning up,' vows PM

Despite Titewhai Harawira's attempt to steal the show at Waitangi, Prime Minister John Key has vowed he will continue to attend celebrations there regardless of the reception he receives.

Threats of yet another disturbance, this time over whether Mrs Harawira would be allowed to escort him on to Te Tii Marae, descended into farce yesterday.

But Mr Key said no matter how hostile the reception, he would always be there as long as he was prime minister.

"I'll keep turning up - you decide how you use it," he told iwi leaders in his speech at Waitangi's lower marae.

"If we want this to be a day of celebration we have to demonstrate that we are big enough to talk about the issues, even if we can't agree on them."

Mr Key questioned the legacy that violent protests left for Waitangi Day and local iwi Ngapuhi.

"If they want to do what they did to me last year, shout me down and not give me a chance to speak, fair enough. But that just doesn't take us anywhere," he said.

"If you want to let a bunch of thugs jump around with bullhorns we are not going to go anywhere," he said referring to his 2009 assault by the Popata brothers.

"How will history judge me? I think as courageous, because I will keep coming back," he said.

He pointedly said his decision to attend Waitangi had not been shared by all his predecessors.

Helen Clark was reduced to tears on the lower marae in 1998 when Mrs Harawira challenged her right to be there and National leader Don Brash had mud thrown at him in 2004.

Mrs Harawira again caused an uproar this year as she refused to give up her self-appointed role of prime ministerial escort on to the marae, after Ngapuhi trustees nominated another kuia, Ani Taurua, to greet Mr Key.

Eventually, after heated debate and a few strong words, both women accompanied him on to the marae, with a few jostles along the way in.

Mr Key was not fazed. "We had a sense that there would be a few issues early on. But it got resolved so we got to the lower marae and we got an opportunity to speak so that is better than last year."

The meeting at the lower marae was an important part of the engagement and the dialogue between the Crown and the Maori, he said. He hoped it could be used to address the problems facing New Zealand.

Opposition leader David Shearer also wants Waitangi Day to be a time for celebration. He would completely remove politics from the agenda, instead introducing an award for New Zealander of the Year.

"I think we need to shift the focus on to what is great about New Zealand, for that reason I believe the suggestion about having our honours, our New Zealander of the Year, Young New Zealander of the Year, and our Community of the Year shifts our focus beyond the negative things," he said.

But Mr Key rubbished the idea of Waitangi Day Honours, saying it was unrealistic to entirely remove politics from the event.

"I'm not interested in having a bar of it. The honours list is a time when we step back and celebrate New Zealanders from all different walks of life, who have achieved all sorts of different and amazing things," he said.

"If we move that to Waitangi Day we will politicise the process and we will move the focus and attention away from those individuals to the grievance de jour of that Waitangi Day."

Maori agreed that progress had been made on managing the lower marae event, despite the Harawira show.

"It was a very positive day. People are prepared to work together," said Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples.

Big personalities were always present, Ngapuhi leader David Rankin said.

"It was a chance to air a few issues," he said. "But certain people monopolise the time. They will always try and hijack the day."

The Dominion Post