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Three major events about to unfold in the new Government’s relationship with Māori

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By Ella Stewart, RNZ

Saturday marks the first of three major events for te ao Māori, all within three weeks. Iwi and hapū across the motu will meet on three separate occasions to kōrero and wānanga about the Government’s proposed policies on the Treaty of Waitangi and te reo Māori use.

The annual events of Rātana and Waitangi Day are usually pivotal moments in the cultural and political calendar. Marking the start of the political year, they provide platforms for the celebration of te ao Māori and foster dialogue between iwi Māori and te Kāwangatanga (the Government).

But this year, another event has been added to the calendar, Hui-ā-Motu, called by the Kīngitanga to “unify the nation and hold the Government to account”.

Hundreds turned out to protest against the Government's policies, at Ōtautahi's Bridge of Remembrance, in what has been described as National Māori Action Day. Photo / RNZ
Hundreds turned out to protest against the Government’s policies, at Ōtautahi’s Bridge of Remembrance, in what has been described as National Māori Action Day. Photo / RNZ

The event is likely to set the scene for the next few weeks of discussions, reflecting the heightened tensions around the perceived “anti-Māori” and “divisive” nature of the new Government’s approach.

It will also be a crucial time for the Government as it finds its feet in te ao Māori. The new ministers and MPs will be closely scrutinised by Māori leaders seeking clarity on their intentions.

The mauri (life force/spirit) of Hui-ā-Motu will be passed on to Rātana, where conversations will continue, and then to Waitangi commemorations. The events will undoubtedly shape the dynamics of Māori-Government relations in the coming year.

Why are this year’s events so significant?

Over the past 20 years, and largely since the 1980s, there has been a broad cross-party consensus on Māori-Crown relations. Both the main parties have supported the application of the Treaty of Waitangi and the revitalisation of te reo.

The new Government has turned sharply away from these positions. Items in the coalition agreement, as well as the rhetoric of its leaders, have been criticised as “anti-Māori” and “divisive”. Already, there are four legal challenges by iwi underway.

Christopher Luxon leads a coalition government that appears to be turning away from bipartisan approaches to the application of the Treaty of Waitangi and the revitalisation of te reo Māori. Photo / RNZ
Christopher Luxon leads a coalition government that appears to be turning away from bipartisan approaches to the application of the Treaty of Waitangi and the revitalisation of te reo Māori. Photo / RNZ

In particular, there are concerns about a planned Treaty Principles Bill, which will be supported by the Government through the initial legislative stage. The bill promises a comprehensive review of all legislation, aside from full and final Treaty settlement acts, with the aim of removing existing references to “the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” from law.

The Government has already axed Te Aka Whai Ora, the Māori Health Authority, and told departments with dual Māori-English names to lead with their English titles.

These issues, as well as the overall approach to relationships with Māori, will colour the mood at Hui-ā-Motu, Rātana and Waitangi Day this year.

Hui-ā-Motu

In December, after widespread protests against Government policies, Kīngi Tūheitia Pōtatau Te Wherowhero VII issued Te Paki o Mātariki, the highest form of proclamation, calling a hui to unify the nation and hold the Government to account.

It has been more than a decade since the Māori King issued a royal proclamation. The last time was in 2012, prompted by a debate over water rights.

Hui-ā-Motu is a tikanga-based event for all ages, taking place at Tūrangawaewae Marae in Ngāruawāhia, which will be focused on looking forward. More than 3000 people have already registered for the event online.

Iwi expected to attend include Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne and Ngāti Porou. The event will be a who’s who of te ao Māori.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi speaking at last year's Rātana celebration. Photo / RNZ
Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi speaking at last year’s Rātana celebration. Photo / RNZ

After the pōwhiri, the hui will split into five breakout sessions with a range of speakers and MCs including Hone Harawira, Pania Papa, Hinewehi Mohi, Tā Tipene O’Regan and Dame Jenny Shipley.

Sessions will focus on tikanga and matauranga, rangatahi perspectives, national unity, people and wellbeing, Te Tiriti and the environment.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon won’t be there. He did, however, meet Kīngi Tūheitia privately on Tuesday. That meeting had been planned since last year and was an opportunity to build on the relationship they had established over the past two years, the prime minister’s office said.

Luxon’s absence may raise eyebrows, though Labour leader Chris Hipkins is not expected to attend either. Instead, both parties will be represented by their senior Māori MPs.

For National, Māori-Crown Relations Te Arawhiti Minister Tama Potaka (Ngāti Hauiti, Whanganui, Ngāruahine, Taranaki, Ngāti Raukawa, and Ngāti Whitikaupeka) and Dan Bidois (Ngāti Maniapoto), who is chair of the Māori Affairs select committee, will be there.

Potaka has a background in leading iwi organisations and is also the Minister for Whānau Ora and Conservation. He will be a key player this weekend for the National Party, but also over the coming weeks with his extensive knowledge of te reo Māori me ōna tikanga (the language and its cultural practices).

Labour’s much-reduced Māori caucus will be there too, as well as Green MPs and all six Te Pāti Māori MPs.

NZ First deputy leader Shane Jone has been scornful of the hui, suggesting it could turn into a “monumental moan session”. He told RNZ the Government’s contentious policies were what the public had voted for and claimed that none of the iwi leaders had read the coalition agreements.

Rātana

The conversations around Māori and Crown relations will continue at the week-long festival held at Rātana, which is usually considered to be the start of the political year. The annual event celebrates the birthday of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, whose pan-iwi religious movement, founded in 1925, has a long-standing alliance with the Labour Party.

Politicians from all parties are invited to speak on issues relating to te ao Māori, while Māori can make their views clear. It’s a place where promises are made and the tone of relationships are set. Act will be the only party in Parliament not attending this year’s Rātana celebrations.

While it is a peaceful event, it has not been without controversy.

Last year, Luxon was directly addressed by prominent Waikato-Tainui leader Rāhui Papa, a speaker on the paepae at Rātana, who told him there was nothing to fear about co-governance.

Waitangi Day

Through the early 2000s, politicians attending Waitangi became a target for some protesters, resulting in the political pōwhiri moving to the Treaty grounds. The physical protests that flared as former National leaders Don Brash and then John Key walked onto the lower Te Tii Marae haven’t been seen in years but there are likely to be firm challenges issued to Government MPs this year.

More recently, Waitangi commemorations have centred around iwi Māori and their voice. A forum tent is typically set up on the grounds of Te Tii Marae where various kaupapa are discussed. The forum tent is set to continue, hosting discussions on tino rangatiratanga, te reo Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The waka flotilla makes its way to Te Tii beach on Waitangi Day last year. Photo / RNZ
The waka flotilla makes its way to Te Tii beach on Waitangi Day last year. Photo / RNZ

But the absence of a large and strong Māori caucus within the current Government, in contrast to the previous Labour Government, changes the dynamic.

Under the last Government, Kiritapu Allen and Peeni Henare attended the forum discussions. Last year, then-deputy Labour leader and local Māori MP Kelvin Davis frequently sat alongside leader Chris Hipkins during official Waitangi events, providing translation and context.

The National-led coalition has fewer ties to the community, less knowledge of tikanga Māori and little in the way of a record to speak of from its Cabinet.

The Waitangi celebrations are also a time of whānaungatanga and whānau fun, with food stalls and New Zealand artists performing. But everyone will be expecting a more tense atmosphere.

With three major gatherings taking place over the next few weeks, the Government should be prepared for Māori to make their opposition to its policies heard.

The nuanced discussions that unfold during Hui-ā-Motu, Rātana and Waitangi commemorations, and the Government’s response to them, will shape its relationship with te ao Māori for the next three years.

RNZ



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