Matt McCarten: Key passes Waitangi test with assured, mature response

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Any politician braving Te Tii Marae must expect there's a good chance to get a bit of biffo. But, oddly, it's how a visiting politician responds to any surprises that becomes the news and in different ways defines them in the pysche of Pakeha and Maori minds.

When Helen Clark was Prime Minister she unfortunately took the wrong advice and tried to speak at the always volatile lower Waitangi marae. Nga Puhi's uncrowned matriarch Titewhai Harawira was having none of it - if Nga Puhi women weren't allowed to speak then she wasn't going to sit by silently while some pakeha woman was given the first honour of breaking tradition.

Harawira's intervention and the resulting uproar was a public relations disaster displayed all over our television stations.

Predictably, many Pakeha blamed Harawira for the whole thing.

This is unfair given that Harawira's criticism was aimed at the Nga Puhi elders who had overridden protocol without consultation.

Harawira's clashes with the conservative tribal leaders are well documented and the elders who gave Clark permission were the same ones who each year refused Harawira or any other Maori women the right to speak because of their gender.

Harawira would turn up each year at Waitangi to challenge the set-up. Men on horseback once even chased her off the marae.

In recent years, a truce of sorts was reached and although Harawira couldn't speak, she got around the ban by singing her political speeches on the marae with enough insults aimed at the conservative elders to ensure they'd never lift the ban on women - at least while she was still alive.

But it was disconcerting to most New Zealanders to see our iron chancellor break down. The resulting outrage from so-called mainstream Kiwis encouraged Clark to foolishly declare she'd never set foot on the lower marae again. It played well in the short term but it dawned on us that she wasn't as tough and self possessed as we had assumed.

But the unrecognised, long-term effect of her snub in attending Waitangi reinforced in many Maori eyes that she was petty and vindictive. I believe that incident was the start of the split between Maori and the Labour Party that she led. Clark never restored her reputation with many Maori after that incident.

Don Brash, when he was the National Party leader, had a completely different agenda when he visited Te Tii. It was pure opportunist theatre. After Brash's successful Orewa speech that appealed to mainstream Pakeha fears and dark racism, he needed to cement that support.

Brash's visit was calculated to provoke. When he was hit by a clump of dirt, his strategists couldn't believe their good luck. His strategist John Carter, in an unguarded moment, gloated to Brash that the incident was worth 10 percentage points in the polls. After that, Brash never looked back and just three years after National was electorally crushed by Labour, Brash came within one seat of pulling off the prime ministerial job.

However, John Key - from when he first became leader of the National Party - has been the great beneficiary of Waitangi. Remember when he took a Maori kid he met from one of Auckland's poorest streets as his guest to Waitangi before the election? It was an inspired decision.

It had the bonus of being seemingly a genuine off-the-cuff offer to the child's mother and the resulting publicity showed him to be vastly different from his predecessor Brash.

Key's behaviour at the Te Tii Marae on Thursday has shown New Zealand and its relationship with Maori has changed forever. The rush at him by a couple of individuals was also an opportunity for him. The embarrassment of his hosts was expected, as I'm sure they were when Clark and Brash were attacked.

But it seems Key really is different. He brushed off the incident, which you have to give him points for.

But he also promised Nga Puhi that the attack hadn't put him off and that he'll be back next year and the next and the next. It was brave, but very smart, too.

That one statement must have Labour freaking out. Maybe, just maybe, Key really is genuine when he says he wants to build a new relationship with Maori.

His inclusion of the Maori Party in his government when he didn't have to, was clever politics.

But he genuinely seems to want to make it work. There seems to be a friendship between him and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples.

Even Key's public statement that he supports having a Maori flag flown on Waitangi Day, not just on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, but on Government buildings, too, was astonishing. A Labour leader wouldn't have ever dared to say that. Key has promised to fly a Maori flag next year.

Our Waitangi Day has always been marred by protest for good reason. Our national holiday has become an embarrassment to most New Zealanders.

It's taken a white boy from Christchurch who has spent most of his adult life overseas to finally give us hope that just maybe we can finally be proud of our national day.

For our sake I hope he can. He's made a great start.

- Herald on Sunday

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