Editorial: New Waitangi or just a breather?

Last updated 13:00 07/02/2013

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OPINION: It's difficult to read too much into the lull in Waitangi Day rancour.

But the lack of acrimony at the annual ceremonies marking our national day this year is at least a welcome break from the verbal and sometimes physical hostilities that have marred previous Waitangi Days.

In recent years Prime Minister John Key has been assaulted, abused and shouted down at Waitangi. But the most heat this year was generated by a dispute labelled "grannygate" between two kuia over who would escort him on to the lower marae.

Naturally, it involved veteran activist and self-appointed prime ministerial guide Titewhai Harawira. It was resolved with only feathers ruffled, and the prime minister got to say his piece on the lower marae - something he was not able to do last year because of protests.

The relatively peaceful background framed Mr Key's speech at yesterday's dawn ceremony where he sought to recast the focus of the day to looking forward, not back.

He says the treaty settlement process has provided the vehicle for that shift and its increasing momentum under his Government - 33 settlements in its first term out of 59 in total - is freeing iwi both economically and from the burden of seeking redress.

Top of the south iwi are among those nearing the end of their decades-long battle.

Six of the region's eight iwi groups have signed deeds of settlement, and the other two are expected to do so shortly, with legislation ratifying them hopefully passed by the end of this year.

The deals will inject several hundred million dollars into the iwi organisations, and it's encouraging that they are now gearing up their governance and commercial structures to cope.

In some ways they are in a fortunate position, being able to follow the blueprint set by tribes like Ngai Tahu that has successfully grown its payout, and avoid the pitfalls of some North Island iwi that have lost large sums in questionable ventures.

A sound commercial approach is set to benefit both the iwi membership through initiatives in health, education and employment, and the wider region through investment and jobs.

The prime minister is bullish about painting the post-settlement prospects of iwi authorities, contrasting them to "a small but vocal few who are apparently unable to see the world through any lens other than that of Maori disadvantage".

They risk damaging the public goodwill for treaty settlements and other initiatives to help Maori, such as in education. Such goodwill cannot be taken for granted, he says.

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One of those he was surely referring to, MP Hone Harawira, naturally takes a different view, saying activism has helped lead to the settlements and will always have a place at Waitangi.

Debate over issues such as Maori underachievement will naturally continue, and there are historical grievances such as water rights still to be sorted out.

But with the major land deals almost done, perhaps Waitangi this year will set the scene for a national day looking to the present and the future.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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