PM Bill English defends Waitangi Day no-show, says Kiwis 'cringe' at protests
Prime Minister Bill English has defended his decision to skip Waitangi Day commemorations at the treaty grounds, saying many Kiwis "cringe a bit" at the protests that take place on New Zealand's national day.
English has accepted an invitation from iwi leaders to lead a delegation of ministers to Waitangi to meet ahead of Waitangi Day celebrations but announced he will not attend the annual powhiri at Te Tii Marae.
The attendance of NZ's prime minister at Waitangi is a vexed issue every year, with John Key making the decision not to go in 2016 after being refused speaking rights and threats of protests.
Speaking to media in Auckland, English said he had written to marae officials after being appointed prime minister to determine the conditions on his attendance.
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He had been told he would not be able to speak at the powhiri, a decision which he did not believe was appropriate for the leader of the country.
"The marae committee has decided that the prime minister can't speak on their marae, and that as far as I'm concerned is not respectful of the role.
"We have the right to decide [whether to attend]...protocol is I don't have to go onto that marae if the arrangements aren't respectful for New Zealand and New Zealanders."
While protests at Waitangi had been "nationally relevant" 15 to 20 years ago, that was no longer the case.
"Political discussion at Te Tii Marae is now really about Ngapuhi issues and their own concerns in Northland, but it's a national day, a day for New Zealanders to be proud of their whole country.
"A lot of New Zealanders cringe a bit on Waitangi Day when they see the way that the ceremonies are being conducted, the ceremonies and welcomes, the type of protest there has been in recent years, and I'm pretty keen that we have a day when they're proud."
English said he had not yet decided what he would do on Waitangi Day, although he will be in Auckland.
'NEWS TO ME'
While English has made his decision not to go, his reasons for doing so are news to the chair of the Waitangi Organising Committee and NZ First MP Pita Paraone.
"Not being able to speak wasn't the tenor of our discussions that we had late last year and early this year...it's news to me."
At a meeting at Waitangi in November, the committee and Ngapuhi elders voted unanimously to invite then Prime Minister Key back to Te Tii Marae with no conditions on what he could or couldn't speak about.
At the time Paraone said even he was "surprised by the ease in which it went through".
On Monday Paraone said he didn't know who the gagging order had come from but suspected it was from the same group who extended the invite to English to attend.
The marae kaumatua includes Ngapuhi elder Kingi Taurua, who was held responsible for orchestrating threats of riots last year that meant Key ditched his plans to attend only days before he was due to arrive.
However Taurua had no idea communication between the marae and English's office had been going on and said he'd throw whoever was responsible for the message "into the sea as shark bait".
Letters obtained by Stuff (readable in full at the bottom of this page) reveal English's chief of staff Wayne Eagleson has been communicating with Waitangi marae chairman Ngati Kawa Taituha, who specifically set out that, "for the sakes of maintaining clear lines of communication this year, I highly recommend you do not dialogue with any other person but myself".
Taurua said English needed to know the marae was "open" to him and he would be welcomed but that political talks and arguments needed to be taken away from the marae, which is why the alternative to speak in a tent after the powhiri had been suggested.
"Don't be a child and hide and go away because issues never go away unless you sit down and talk."
Taurua said he was surprised by English's decision not to attend because he thought he was a "wonderful guy who can converse with anyone".
"I hope he apologises and come to Waitangi and talks to me about the protocol."
While Taurua supported the return of the Prime Minister at the meeting late last year he also warned that protests could flare up again as some Maori were unhappy at the country's leader being invited back.
Paraone said he was concerned this would be the beginning of a new tradition whereby the Prime Minister wouldn't attend commemorations of the national day at Waitangi.
"Hell yeah I'm disappointed.
"If the Prime Minister of our country can't see a way clear to attend commemorations at Waitangi - the signing of our founding document - then you can understand why some Maori are quite cynical about the Crown's approach to Waitangi issues," he said.
"I would have thought he would have taken himself above (speaking rights) issues and been more pragmatic about things."
The Prime Minister will attend the meeting on February 3 but celebrate Waitangi Day in Auckland.
"I am looking forward to meeting with the leaders of the 60 iwi who comprise the Iwi Chair's Forum, to progress a range of issues of importance to Maoridom and New Zealand."
English was offered the same conditions as former prime minister John Key last year, which was to have speaking rights in a political tent following the powhiri but not be able to speak freely on Te Tii marae.
Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett will lead a Government delegation to the dawn service in Waitangi on Waitangi Day.
WAITANGI DECISION 'MARK AGAINST ENGLISH'
Labour leader Andrew Little said English's decision to skip the Waitangi commemorations was disappointing and "a mark against him".
"He's a new prime minister, this was his opportunity to stamp his mark on the national day of celebration, and he's obviously declined to do so."
Whether or not English was granted speaking rights, he should have agreed to attend the dawn ceremony at Te Tii Marae for what was "an important national celebration for all of New Zealand", Little said.
"The prime minister ought to be at the centre of that...and he does that by attending the formal ceremonies at Waitangi on Waitangi Day.
"The fact that he's not doing that I think undermines the significance of the day, not just for Maori but for all New Zealand."
Little said he was committed to attending Waitangi commemorations if elected prime minister, whether or not he was given speaking rights.
He hoped English's decision, following that of Key, did not set a precedent for future prime ministers.
"I hope that politicians generally, and certainly future prime ministers, respect the importance of the occasion, of the day, and of the place."
Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said English should go regardless of whether he has speaking rights or not.
His decision not to go was probably about avoiding being "embroiled in controversy" so early on in the job, she said.
Not attending Waitangi was a "missed opportunity" for both English and Maori but the Maori Party is "not the Maori wing of the National Party" and Fox said she would be at Waitangi regardless and English's decision didn't reflect on their political support for the Government.
END TO WAITANGI PROMISE?
Last year Key didn't attend Waitangi for the first time after threats of protests, riots and a "gagging order" in response to the Government signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
Before becoming prime minister in 2008, Key promised he would regularly attend the Waitangi dawn service and visit Te Tii Marae, after Helen Clark stopped going to annual commemorations.
Key instead spent the national day last year at the NRL Nines tournament in Auckland.
ACT leader David Seymour Te Tii Marae's "continued failure to respectfully host the Government on Waitangi Day should prompt the Prime Minister to visit a different marae each year".
"The behaviour of a small group of perpetually-grumpy activists has turned Waitangi Day into an annual political circus, denying Kiwis a national day we can all enjoy.
"It's never been clear why one iwi gets to monopolise the celebrations. The Treaty wasn't just signed at Waitangi, it went on tour and was signed by chiefs all over the country.
"Ngapuhi activists have denied the whole country a proud national day a few times too many. Let's take this show on the road. There were 20-odd signing locations so it'll return to Te Tii Marae in around 2037.
"A bit of competition among locations might help to lift standards of behaviour, bringing some dignity and joy back to this special day," he said.