Waitangi - here we go again

GRANT MILLER
Last updated 12:45 04/02/2013

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OPINION: Waitangi Day looks set to be a circus in 2013, as it has often been in the past.

Politicians have sometimes been taken by surprise by the theatre and abuse at Te Tii Marae in Waitangi, but this year a story has started to play out days before the February 6 commemorations, so the shock factor should be down a notch or two.

There is again disquiet about the woman who has been protective about her role of leading Prime Minister John Key on to the lower marae.

She is, of course, Titewhai Harawira, a long-time activist and mother of Mana Party leader Hone Harawira.

The role of escort has a strong element of self-appointment, and the National Party's endorsement of Mrs Harawira in the past has accorded her status that has sometimes been problematic.

In 2009, marae elders tried to replace her with Nellie Rata, the widow of Matiu Rata.

In 2011, the marae's board threatened to ban Mrs Harawira. She was accused of breaching protocol and being a bully.

This year, Ngapuhi elder Kingi Taurua said trustees decided they wanted a change, but Mrs Harawira was very much opposed to the idea.

Once again, we have a sideshow.

Mr Taurua, at least, would rather that the focus be on Maori opposition to the sell-down of state-owned energy companies or the lack of a written constitution.

He has a point there, but nobody has worked out how to handle the uncompromising Mrs Harawira, so it remains an ongoing issue.

A spokeswoman for Mr Key said the decision about who would escort him was one for the marae. Indeed Mr Key's kaumatua, Lewis Moeau, said it would be inappropriate for the Government to tell marae elders who should greet the prime minister.

This is the obvious line for the Government to take, but the National Party should not pretend it has had no role in the creation of this situation.

National has fed Mrs Harawira's ego on past Waitangi Days, so it is not in a position where it can distance itself from the affair. Its role in the plot has not been insignificant, particularly in 1999, when the prime minister at the time, Jenny Shipley, walked arm in arm with the woman who a year earlier had reduced Labour leader Helen Clark to tears.

Ms Clark refused to return, but Mr Key has remained committed. It appears his main line of reasoning is that he criticised Ms Clark for not attending, so he basically has to go.

It's unclear what this achieves.

If National wanted to give greater effect to Treaty of Waitangi principles, it could take a hard look at the circumstances that see Maori on the unfortunate end of many statistics.

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If the party was seriously concerned about the Crown's relationship with Maori, it could give enthusiastic backing to schemes such as Whanau Ora, which is meant to take a family approach to caring for individuals needing help from agencies.

If Waitangi Day is about dialogue between partners, history suggests Te Tii Marae is unlikely to provide a constructive environment for this.

If it's about marking an important day, there are many ways to do this.

The annual showcase of bitterness is more likely than not to lead people into more entrenched positions.

Waitangi Day brings to the fore views that fit into three camps.

The first belongs to people who view colonisation negatively.

The second belongs to people who see the Treaty as a historical document of no great relevance in the 21st century.

The third belongs to people who will make sure their televisions are switched off at 6pm on Wednesday. They may wonder if the same old antics will lead the news in 2063.

Most New Zealanders sense that there is something wrong with our national day being reduced to a platform for protest, sideshows and hyped-up conflict.

It's a bit like people making a point of being grumpy during Thanksgiving.

There is a place for protest, of course. There is a place for robust debate.

But Ms Clark, clearly, made a rational and understandable call not to subject herself to abuse - taking the heat out of the situation. National's decision to play politics with that is not to its credit, and the party has made sure the media focus will be on any spectacle at Waitangi, instead of on real issues.

What those involved in the annual Waitangi farce fail to understand is how dishonouring their activities are to the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Treaty is about partnership - not stunts, grandstanding and intimidation. It's about two parties acting in good faith.

In recent decades the Treaty has acquired increasing constitutional importance, or, some may argue, its importance is starting to get due recognition. It is ironic that this founding document about partnership remains a lightning rod for division.

* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard''s head of content and a politics junkie.

- Manawatu Standard

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