This Waitangi Day the stakes are higher than they have been for years with government policies seen by some to encroach on Māori territory and tikanga. Senior writer David Fisher looks at who faces
the greatest risk – or reward – in the days ahead.
Here comes a Waitangi Day loaded with greater anticipation and more tension than seen for years.
Over the past decade, our national day and the events leading up to it have transformed. It was once typically days of protest with frustration on display through naked and noisy aggression.
Then that faded, replaced by more order, less chaos, and – on the day itself – a joyous coming together.
This year, though, the National Party’s coalition agreement with the Act Party and NZ First has set a different stage.
It has sought to turn down the dial on te reo Māori, remove the Māori Health Authority, agreed to Act’s demands to replace years of judicial determination with a new law setting out the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and NZ First’s desire to review the Waitangi Tribunal.
The proposed changes were interpreted by some as a refreshed marginalisation of Māori in a world where a decades-long renaissance had appeared to have achieved true traction. It appeared to set a new direction after almost three decades of consensus on Crown-Māori relations.
Amid the uproar, Te Pati Māori produced a pre-Christmas protest seemingly out of nowhere. Urgent appeals were lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal.
Then, the Kingitanga movement called a hui-a-motu which saw 10,000 people gathering at Tūrangawaewae Marae in Ngāruawāhia.
That was followed by the annual gathering at Rātana, the annual celebration of its founder Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana’s birthday. It’s an event usually seen as the start of the political year and left the new Government in no doubt it had fallen short of the expectations of many in te ao Māori.
So now to Waitangi, where it is expected that message will be sent again, with vigour.
For some, the stakes are incredibly high. Here’s who stands to win – or lose – over the next few days, and those who might as well be on the sidelines.
The only way is up
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon
There is an unfortunate view that expectations of the new PM are so low that – short of a catastrophic misstep – Luxon is unlikely to emerge in worse shape than he arrives.
But there is also a view that Luxon could find a way to shoot for the moon and emerge much enhanced. To do so he would need to stick true to National Party history and values – and still surprise. Think Andrew Little in 2020, when he stunned those attending by delivering his eight-minute whaikōrero in te reo Māori.
Political commentator Matthew Hooton says: “The biggest potential winner from Waitangi Day is the Prime Minister, because things are a bit of a mess, expectations are so low and he has a huge opportunity to surprise on the upside and finally establish himself as leader of the country.”
Bryce Edwards, a political scientist, isn’t so sure that Luxon can pull such a rabbit out of the hat. He reckons Luxon will win points in middle New Zealand for turning up and “if he gets jeered and heckled”.
A standard under which to rally
Māori King Tūheitia Pōtatau Te Wherowhero VII
Kiingi Tūheitia’s call for a hui-a-motu was a rare use of a royal proclamation and brought a stunning result, with 10,000 people gathering in Tainui territory at Tūrangawaewae Marae in Ngāruawāhia.
In doing so, it reflected the roots of the Kīngitanga movement. It was formed in 1858 to provide a unified approach to the growing influence and force of the colonial and settler population. As Scott Campbell – an expert communicator with strategic iwi insight – says calling the hui fulfilled its role of kotahitanga (unity) and made it a focus for the new issues arising.
While the Kīngitanga is paramount chief of several iwi – primarily Tainui – it holds no particular sway over others including Ngāti Whātua, Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou and Ngāpuhi.
However, Kiingi Tūheitia has planted a standard by which others can rally. And he has done so after three elections in which he has, contrary to his mother’s apolitical approach, lent increasing support to Te Pāti Māori.
Journalist Annabelle Lee-Mather said there is more than Pākehā politics at play here. With Kiingi Tūheitia’s visit to Waitangi, he will look to secure and advance the cause of the Kīngitanga.
That’s an interesting advantage to secure, with Ben Thomas, former staffer for former treaty relations minister Chris Finlayson, pointing to the coming contest between iwi and established providers for government contracts to deliver services for Māori.
Ballast in stormy seas – or a bridge too far?
Shane Jones, Cabinet minister, son of Tai Tokerau, potential future NZ First leader
When Shane Jones steps onto any marae in the North, those present sit a little straighter and listen more closely. He is known across Tai Tokerau – and farther afield – as one of te reo Māori’s most eloquent and meaningful speakers, and a repository of Ngāpuhi history.
It’s a contrast to the role Jones has fulfilled alongside NZ First leader Winston Peters, appealing to what some describe as Pākehā talkback listeners. That’s no big leap for Peters but for Jones, steeped in the language and tikanga, fulfilling that role at Waitangi has the potential to be a catalyst in determining his future path.
At Rātana, Jones faced booing alongside NZ First leader Winston Peters and later appeared visibly shaken at the reception he received. He pushed on after, talking of the need to review the Waitangi Tribunal – a step that finds favour with some but is so afronting to others it was akin to pouring petrol on a bonfire.
In the North, it could be Jones’ mana and prowess on the paepae is such that he will keep naysayers in check. He exerts a degree of ownership over events with his famous Waitangi Day party, which typically serves as a barometer of influence depending on who is attending.
So, he could be the ballast the Government needs to sail through – or he could become a focus for palpable frustration. John Tamihere (Te Pāti Māori president, so not absent skin in the game) said: “If he keeps going the way he’s going, he’s passing a point from which there is no return.”
Even when you lose, you win
David Seymour, Act leader
It’s hard to see how Seymour could come out of Waitangi Day badly (short of curling up in a ball on the ground at the first pukana).
In the months since the election, Seymour has popped up across traditional and social media talking about his desire to review the Treaty of Waitangi principles and to bring equal rights to all in New Zealand.
Should he become the focus of protest at Waitangi, it will boost his profile in the eyes of his supporters and be seen as proof he is poking the right bear. So even if it goes badly, Waitangi will go well for Seymour. As Hooton said: “He already owns the space he wants to own and the days ahead will only entrench that.”
There are those who say Seymour is running out of road. He’s been talking about wanting a debate on the Treaty principles yet Act’s select committee inquiry is seen by many in te ao Māori (and outside it) as a rort, happening in an environment suited to producing an outcome in line with Seymour’s political push.
Professor Margaret Mutu, esteemed academic and chair of the Iwi Leaders Group, said: “He’s asked for a debate but he has never come near me as an academic or at the national iwi leaders forum.”
A time to shine
Te Pāti Māori
Fresh from success at the election, Te Pāti Māori is making its own way on to the marae at Waitangi rather than the practice of previous years in which all opposition parties are welcomed together. It will do so with Mariameno Kapa-Kingi from the Far North as Te Tai Tokerau MP and one of its six MPs in Parliament.
With Kapa-Kingi among its number it can, as with almost everywhere in the country, lay claim to a local connection through which it can represent Māori across the country.
This is a different Te Pāti Māori to that which came out of the Foreshore and Seabed debate and protests in 2004 but – as then – comes at a time in which there are issues on which it can serve as a unifying focus and force.
This is a party that, as president Tamihere said, lives as much in te ao Māori.
“We’re in a totally different constitutional space in terms of representing the voice of Māori.”
And Waitangi provides an ideal stage from which its unique voice can be heard – as its new MPs did when arriving at the big marae called Parliament after the election.
Expect to see co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer leading a group of MPs onto Waitangi in a way people will be talking about for years.
As Act benefits from its political moves in the space of Crown-Māori relations so does Te Pāti Māori. Lee-Mather said: “The people who stand to gain is Te Pāti Māori. [The current debate] draws attention to them, unifies young people.”
Willow-Jean Prime, Peeni Henare – Labour list MPs, rising stars of Labour Māori caucus, local heroes
The Labour Party has yet to recover from its election trouncing or to have the internal conversation in which it finds its true North.
While leader Chris Hipkins has little to win or lose (“irrelevant”, as a number of people interviewed said), MPs Henare and Prime have the opportunity to mark out their political futures and influence in Labour’s Māori caucus.
That’s important, not only for Labour securing Māori seats in future elections but in how the party communicates with the rest of New Zealand in the context of the widely-held view it went too far, too fast, in meeting Māori aspirations.
Henare and Prime have a hometown advantage – both have roots in nearby Moerewa – which will allow them to be in the background of most set pieces without having to make much noise.
All of us
Aotearoa New Zealand
Everyone that lives in this country has a lot at stake over the next few days. The speeches to be given, the reception greeting those such as Luxon, Peters and Seymour, and the forces that unleashes in the years to come will impact all of us.
Waitangi has long been about taking a measure of progress on the document that led to the creation of New Zealand. The friction seen in previous years has provided Māori an opportunity to speak and for those in power to listen, levelling out an imbalance that exists across much of the rest of the year. In recent years, there has been less friction which perhaps signalled progress in a direction that suited Māori. The support garnered by the Act Party and NZ First on policies described as anti-Māori showed not all considered that a good thing.
The debate which has followed will be of enormous importance to New Zealand – not only what we talk about but how we do so and how well-equipped we are to have that conversation. These times will test our nation. Have you studied for that test?
Do you know the articles of the Treaty? Do you know whose signature on that document represents you today? Do you know what followed in Northland, then Taranaki, Waikato and across the rest of the country? Do you know how the Treaty came into law in the 1970s? And what of the settlement process – do you know who got what and whether, compared to what was lost, that was a good deal?
Do you know why we have Waitangi Day?
David Fisher is based in Northland and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, winning multiple journalism awards including being twice named Reporter of the Year and being selected as one of a small number of Wolfson Press Fellows to Wolfson College, Cambridge. He joined the Herald in 2004.