A gift for controversy

18:52, Feb 04 2013

New Zealanders will not be surprised by the sudden emergence of Titewhai Harawira as a threat to the undisturbed celebration of Waitangi Day this year.

She has been the taiaha of dissent at Waitangi for decades and old age and the gaining in recent years of an official role in the ceremonies have not dimmed her gift for controversy.

The official role is at the core of the present row. This time the dissent has somewhat been forced upon her by the Waitangi Trust Board provocatively ending her privilege of escorting dignitaries onto the lower marae. The decision seems to have been sprung on her and was accompanied by assertions of her lack of mana - insults that have invited a show of defiance from Harawira during celebrations this year.

Truly this is a sideshow from the dominating importance of Waitangi Day as a celebration of the nation's bicultural foundation and continued existence as such. But it has already grabbed the headlines and will continue to, however happy and inspiring most of the proceedings, such is the attraction of public shows of anger from characterful people.

But we New Zealanders need to keep a sense of proportion whatever happens and celebrate or just reflect on the qualities of our nation and people that form our unique identity. Those extraordinary things outweigh utterly a squabble between Harawira and her other members of her iwi.

As is the case with squabbles, the origins are obscure and the implications minor. In this instance it is not worth attempting to trace the envy and insults that presumably lie at its core, but it poses a problem. The row devalues Waitangi Day because it again associates it with division. It threatens to mar the day with the prospect of an undignified squabble at a time when great value is placed on diginified ceremony.


New Zealanders, though, are finding a way through the bad image by holding celebrations in other places of significance - particularly at the several sites where the Treaty was signed - or by simply spending the day with family and friends.

It is a fine thing, paradoxically caused by the foul behaviour at Waitangi over many years. Dispute there drove prime ministers and the diplomatic corps at various times to stay away and attend celebrations elsewhere and thereby turn the focus to other parts of the country and to other cultural groups.

Gatherings, such as that at Onuku Marae, in Banks Peninsula, are setting the standard for what the day should be - a display of inclusiveness, confidence in the future, a commitment to overcome present problems and acknowledgment of the past. But they cannot replace the fundamental impact of the yearly events at Waitangi, however fraught they become. That ground is New Zealanders' turangawaewae, where their nation was founded and thus the place where the annual renewing of that foundation is best carried out.

If Titewhai Harawira prevents that from happening this year she will devalue her mana and the day. The nation will see it as an unseemly display of hurt feelings, not a protest about the state of race relations or the other important issues, such as the sale of state assets and the associate tangle of water rights, that New Zealanders should be focusing on.

The Press