Key willing to listen to Maori voices

19:17, Feb 06 2013

It is traditional to pile abuse on self-appointed prime ministerial guard dog Titewhai Harawira at Waitangi as she barges into frame alongside the leader.

And it is easy enough to do, especially this year with her unlovely attempt to usurp the first choice of Te Tii Marae elders, the modest Ani Taurua, as the escort for the prime minister onto the lower marae on Waitangi eve.

Local police and various commentators have described her actions as holding the nation and its national day to ransom.

But I come to praise her role, not to bury her in more invective.

Because behind the shameless ego-parading she provides - presumably unintentionally - a priceless service by holding up a mirror to the foibles and strengths of successive governments and prime ministers.

Think of the fool in Shakespeare who helps highlight the weaknesses, vanities or hypocrisies of his "betters".


In 1998, Helen Clark in opposition was smarting over Jenny Shipley's ouster of Jim Bolger - a move that robbed her forever of the title "first female New Zealand prime minister", leaving as a consolation the water-weak moniker of "first elected female prime minister".

When Shipley arrived unexpectedly at Waitangi that year she was allowed to speak. But when Clark wanted her say, she was interrupted by Harawira who insisted it would be a breach of protocol, especially before Maori women had the same right.

Clark was reduced to tears, probably as much out of frustration and anger as disappointment, as she was caught between two crucial Labour touchstones: equal rights for women and respect for Maori protocol.

She reacted by staying away and then later restricting her attendance only to the upper marae. It was a period when the foreshore and seabed fracas, and Don Brash's speech highlighting so-called Maori "privilege", drove a wedge between Labour and a chunk of its Maori support and saw the rise of the Maori Party.

Prime Minister John Key has made the call to go to Te Tii and to keep going whatever.

Why, when National Party leaders have been variously jostled, shouted down and - in the case of Brash - pelted with mud?

Why, when the sight of Key hand in glove with Harawira - the mother of Hone and the matriarch of a dynasty of protest - hardly appeals to the swinging middle-of-the road voter?

It is partially defiance. Not to go would be a concession and a sign of weakness - or worse, an apparent unwillingness to confront the difficulties that need to be aired on Waitangi Day.

As Key himself said inside the meeting house, "history will judge me well for coming here year after year".

This year it was doubly important for him to front, with water rights issues so recently being canvassed in the Supreme Court - a fight that seems to have expanded the influence of the Maori Council with two controversial figures from the Left and the Right joining: John Tamihere and Donna Awatere Huata.

Even if the court upholds the earlier judgment and finds for the Crown, allowing the partial sale of Mighty River Power to go ahead, the question of Maori water rights will not be dammed.

Key is nervously eyeing the next step in the Pouakani case, where Chief Justice Sian Elias' liberal view is seen as holding more sway than in the asset sales case.

In that case, determined in June, the Supreme Court found Maori rights had not been extinguished in the non- navigable stretch of the Waikato River adjacent to land at Pouakani. (Ownership of rivers was set by the 1903 Coal Mines Amendment Act, which states that the beds of navigable rivers are vested in the Crown; in the Pouakani case, the court found that a river's navigability would be determined on each section of a river, not on the river overall.)

While the Supreme Court found in Pouakani's favour, the second leg of the appeal, expected later this year, will examine whether the Crown breached its fiduciary duty and if so what remedies should apply.

The case has clearly strengthened Maori claims to water, riverbeds and management and allocation rights, if they can have parts of rivers declared non- navigable.

Harawira and the stoushes at Waitangi - and how Key responds - may be riveting theatre.

But there is more (shallow) water to be explored before we hear the chimes of midnight on the far more substantial issue of Maori water rights.

Vernon Small is a senior political writer with the Fairfax political bureau.

The Press