John Key the meat in a kaumatua sandwich

19:57, Feb 07 2013

Prime Minister John Key found himself the meat in a kaumatua sandwich this Waitangi Day and, although his resilient self weathered the moment without flinching, he was clearly unhappy about it.

The snippets we were directed to, via the media window, show an apparent circus complete with clowns, strongmen, tightrope walkers and about five ringmasters.

I suspect the truth is much more subtle and balanced and general reports are of an uneventful, relaxing family event with a few political moments.

But, in his speech, Key alluded to a few grandstanders that were being flamboyant and negative and putting the whole Treaty-settlement process at risk.

He implied Treaty settlements were about the goodwill of all New Zealanders and that the inevitable presence of radical protesters at Waitangi Day celebrations would erode that goodwill.

One thing that is predictable as a demonstrator at Waitangi is a politician ready to state that their negativity is detrimental to nation building.


Helen Clark, when she was prime minister, made the now-infamous comment about wreckers and haters when referring to protesters gathered outside Parliament.

Key's comments are a far cry from that but they reflect a similar idea: Protest is destructive.

The irony is that the core theme in his speech was about the contribution women have made to New Zealand society as it is today.

There can be few in disagreement about such a statement given we were the first country that allowed women the vote and had the very first female mayor in the Commonwealth - but there is no way this would have occurred without a degree of radicalism.

Kate Sheppard, now lauded as a suffrage campaigner and a national hero, was regularly looked down upon by those much more comfortable with the 19th- century status quo.

It was not an uncommon view that women should go home and look after kids and husbands and forget about politics. Their petitions were seen as meddling in affairs of no concern to them and simply disruptive for no good purpose.

As we now know, Sheppard and her associates rose above the criticism and the resistance to successfully win the vote for women, although after a last-ditch effort from Richard Seddon to thwart their plans.

And where might the working class be if it had not been for the often-violent protests waged on the wharves and in the streets to ensure that some balance was achieved in terms of spreading the nation's wealth. I suspect nearly all New Zealanders would agree that workers' rights are much fairer now than they might have been if certain leaders had not championed their cause.

At most times that these progressions have been fought for, the state has resisted, sometimes violently.

There are some poignant photographs of protesters marching on Parliament in the early 1970s. They carried a petition in support of the preservation of te reo Maori. Included in that band of protesters were people such as Rawiri Paratene, Koro Dewes and his children Cathy and Whaimutu Dewes.

Others involved were Timoti Karetu, Tipene O'Regan and Api Mahuika, just to name a few. Action such as this led to Maori Language Day and Maori Language Week which is now a widely celebrated event. It was also fundamental to building a platform for Kohanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa Maori and Maori Television.

Within our generation, perhaps the most dramatic demonstration occurred in 1981 during the Springbok tour. Certainly we were a nation divided but history already considers John Minto as a champion of what was right as opposed to the subversive, divisive figure he was portrayed to be 30 years ago.

Suffice to say that, in modern, or modernising, nations without such characters, change is unlikely, if not impossible. There are simply too many people who have a vested interest in the status quo or are uncomfortable with the conflict and are content not to rock the boat.

Others are blissfully ignorant as to the nature of the matter being protested and naturally assume that all the hippies are making noise about nothing and they should all go get a job.

There is no doubt the Harawira family has long been synonymous with protest and this type of unrelenting and often aggressive demonstration at one level, combined with dogged diplomacy at another level, has, more often than not, been required to see any progress made on Treaty-based matters over the past 40 years.

Whether a bit of shoulder- pushing argy-bargy and a staged taiaha battle could be considered a protest is another question and perhaps that was the prime minister's point.

But, regardless, there are those who truly live by the same belief that Kate Sheppard did and they are prepared to fight for it - "All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome."

The Press