A fresh start at Waitangi?

What successful Waitangi commemorations should look like is a matter of perspective. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images.

To some Kiwis, Waitangi Day commemorations have become synonymous with protest and political squabbling. With a new prime minister and government, how might that change? And what are the wider implications for Crown-Maori relations? Sam Sachdeva reports.

Waitangi hasn't been a happy place for politicians for the last couple of decades. There was Helen Clark wiping tears from her eyes in 1998, Don Brash being pelted with a dirt clod in 2004 and Steven Joyce being hit in the face with a sex toy in 2016.

The enduring images from recent Waitangi Day celebrations at Te Tii Marae have been far from pleasant, and cannon fodder for those who allege New Zealand’s national day is about grievance rather than graceful remembrance of our past.

Announcing his decision to avoid Waitangi last February after being declined speaking rights, then-Prime Minister Bill English claimed many Kiwis “cringe a bit on Waitangi Day when they see the way that the ceremonies have been conducted”.

"There was a time when the protest at Waitangi was nationally relevant - 15, 20 years ago. That time has passed because we have made so much progress on relations with Maori and the Treaty settlements."

Yet this year there is hope that things may be different, due in large part to a change of faces and spaces.

A new generation, a new start?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrived in Waitangi on Friday for an unique five-day visit, as she seeks to make a positive start to relations between her new government and Maori.

On Monday, Ardern and her ministers will be received not at Te Tii but the upper Treaty Grounds, after Waitangi organisers made the decision to shift the government powhiri following the imposition of a media ban at the lower marae last year.

Waitangi organising committee chairman and former MP Pita Paraone says the decision to move the powhiri from Te tii was made “very simple” by the actions of those at the lower marae in 2017.

Paraone says there is an air of excitement around Waitangi, spurred in large part by what he deems “the Jacinda effect”.

“We have a new prime minister who is obviously willing to get out amongst the people and of course return the office to Waitangi.”

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones makes the same point, albeit in his own inimitable way.

“I think the weather is more fickle than the people. People are genuinely glad that the Prime Minister has made a commitment to come back to Waitangi: they realise that she represents a new generation and...they’re excited by that.”

At Ratana last month, Ardern said her government would turn to the example of Maoridom as it tried to bring back “manaakitanga” to public service.

Speaking to Newsroom, she says her words reflected the way Maori had responded during times of crisis, such as homelessness in Auckland and the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.

“There’s this notion that before anything else came compassion, empathy and care for one another and a notion of hospitality…I want to see more of that.”

Jones suggests the change of government comes with a big change from the “nine-year journey” under National and its partners.

Whereas English and his predecessor John Key seemed to focus on Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi and property rights, Jones says the new government will have a greater emphasis on Article Three and the entitlements, rights and obligations of citizenship.

“The question isn’t, do you care, it’s do you care enough to change the structures and systems that have contributed to some of this intense Maori deprivation?"

“What she’s championing is beyond property rights, how do we enrich our communities, and manaakitanga is about the sense of something larger than yourself.”

Talk of more manaakitanga doesn’t fly with English, who suggests the rhetoric is simply “a replacement for gritty, hard-edged discussion”.

“The question isn’t, do you care, it’s do you care enough to change the structures and systems that have contributed to some of this intense Maori deprivation?

“The answer is you can change it but it’s hard - it’s not a question of manaakitanga, but whether you care enough to change how the government works with them.”

He says his government worked hard to forge genuine ties and work with Maori on big issues through forums like the Iwi Leaders Group, and suggests Labour may struggle to accept “the independence and self-direction” that iwi have forged.

Jones accepts English’s comments as a “good wake-up call not to thwart initiative, but suggests self-direction is about more than engagement with iwi leadership.

“On the question of Maori losing control over their lives, control is related to choice, what genuine choices do I have in my life?

“If choice is related to income, then I think Bill himself and the policies that he ran in the last nine years has done more to deny Maori control than any spats with the Iwi Leaders Group.”

'She will speak'

A choice that politicians have not had in recent years is whether or not they can deliver a speech at Waitangi - the issue that reduced Clark to tears and led to English's boycott.

There has been some debate over whether tikanga would prevent Ardern from speaking, complicated by her pregnancy, but Paraone is clear.

“There is an expectation that she will speak, the question is where and when.”

He says the organisers will leave her cultural advisers, such as deputy Kelvin Davis, to provide advice on the right circumstances for her to speak.

Another challenge for Ardern is how she navigates the long-running discussions over a settlement with Ngapuhi, New Zealand’s largest iwi.

Paraone says there is a sense of anticipation about the Prime Minister’s thoughts on the settlement, given disputes over the negotiating mandate and a finding from the Waitangi Tribunal last year that Ngapuhi did not cede sovereignty to the Crown.

While Ngapuhi leader Hone Sadler is confident a settlement can be “done and dusted” by 2020, Paraone says that may require some changes in who is around the table.

“The problem we have, this is a personal view of mine, is personalities have become involved. If we want to aspire to a 2020 settlement, the personalities involved need to stand down from their positions.”

Jones, who is himself Ngapuhi, says a comprehensive settlement is needed rather than an attempt to “dismember” the iwi into different pieces.

"I’ve always found it curious that there seems to be this view that a successful Waitangi is one where there is no robust discussion, if nothing happens then that’s somehow a political win."

So what will success look like at Waitangi?

For Ardern, a day of debate and a day of pride are not mutually exclusive.

“I’ve been to Waitangi for a lot of years and I’ve always found it curious that there seems to be this view that a successful Waitangi is one where there is no robust discussion, if nothing happens then that’s somehow a political win.

“I see no problem with us having robust discussion on issues of the day, that’s, I think, part of what marks our national day as something we should celebrate, the fact we can be that open.”

English says he does not disagree that disagreement is healthy, as long as it as done with “respect, dignity, and credibility”.

“What’s happened in recent years is we’ve had unnecessary controversies that have trivialised the day, that’s what people have tired of…

“I think success there is just conducting it in a way that I see Maori events are conducted everywhere else in New Zealand, and that is just with dignity and respect.”

What everyone appears to agree on is that there is a greater chance of that dignity and respect occurring this year.