Clark's no-show at Waitangi a political risk

Is Prime Minister Helen Clark right to avoid this year's Waitangi commemorations once again? Or should she, to borrow a phrase from Opposition leader John Key, "get over it''?

Back in 1999 Clark was visibly upset when she was refused permission to speak on Te Tii Marae, near Waitangi, when she was leader of the opposition. She vowed never to go back if she became prime minister, although she broke that vow, returning in 2004 only to be physically pushed and jostled by an intimidating crowd of protesters.

Opposition leaders have also been in the firing line - everyone remembers former National Party leader Don Brash getting mud slung at him, and his sporting rejoinder: "Good shot!''

Clark has confirmed she's turned down an olive branch from Nga Puhi to return to Te Tii, and will instead perform her alternative programme, which has become something of a minor tradition in itself. She eschews the lower marae, attending another instead. She goes to Waitangi's treaty grounds, but for her own walkabout rather than during the official ceremony.

She avoids the dawn service (the prime minister famously hates getting up early) and holds a breakfast in her own hotel, the Copthorne. She then goes to the Governor-General's bash before returning to Auckland to attend celebrations in the Labour stronghold of South Auckland.

Is Prime Minister Helen Clark right to avoid this year's Waitangi commemorations once again? Or should she, to borrow a phrase from Opposition leader John Key, "get over it''?

Back in 1999 Clark was visibly upset when she was refused permission to speak on Te Tii Marae, near Waitangi, when she was leader of the opposition. She vowed never to go back if she became prime minister, although she broke that vow, returning in 2004 only to be physically pushed and jostled by an intimidating crowd of protesters.

Opposition leaders have also been in the firing line - everyone remembers former National Party leader Don Brash getting mud slung at him, and his sporting rejoinder: "Good shot!''

Clark has confirmed she's turned down an olive branch from Nga Puhi to return to Te Tii, and will instead perform her alternative programme, which has become something of a minor tradition in itself. She eschews the lower marae, attending another instead. She goes to Waitangi's treaty grounds, but for her own walkabout rather than during the official ceremony.

She avoids the dawn service (the prime minister famously hates getting up early) and holds a breakfast in her own hotel, the Copthorne. She then goes to the Governor-General's bash before returning to Auckland to attend celebrations in the Labour stronghold of South Auckland.

Asked yesterday why she was snubbing Te Tii, Clark said it lacked dignity. I can understand her reluctance given her past experiences, but I wonder whether it's time to draw a line under them and move on, as the PM is so often happy to do.

Shouldn't our prime minister attend the official celebrations at what is, whether we like it or not, New Zealand's national day? Or is the PM right to stay away?

She's certainly taking some political flak. Other political parties, particularly the Maori Party and National, have criticised Clark's no-show, and urged her to attend. It's easy for the Maori Party, of course - they're among friends. No one's going to push, spit, abuse, or throw mud at its MPs.

Key, too, is on to a winner whatever happens. While National leaders have not always been welcome at Te Tii, Key is so easy-going and charming that he is unlikely to cop a faceful of mud like his predecessor. But even if he was abused, it simply plays into his favour. It shows that he's prepared to face up to criticism, while his counterpart is not.

So far, it's working well for him. Arriving at the marae holding hands with Titewhai Harawira, Clark's old nemesis, is a powerful political symbol. Key also had the guts to state he still planned to abolish the Maori seats. 

Being the Prime Minister is a little different, of course. One does have to keep one's dignity. But I wonder whether this would have been the year to take the risk and return to Te Tii.