Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

'If PM's not going, I won't either'

Treaty Negotiations Minister stands by his leader amid fuss over marae visit.
John Key says he intends to stick to his commitment to visit Waitangi every year if possible. Photo / NZME
John Key says he intends to stick to his commitment to visit Waitangi every year if possible. Photo / NZME

Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson says if John Key does not go to Te Tii Marae he will avoid it as well, saying the dispute over whether the Prime Minister should be invited was "highly discourteous".

"I wouldn't go on. I'd be most unhappy about going on. I think it's highly discourteous to the head of the Government to behave in this way."

But he did not expect the stoush over the visit to affect Government-Ngapuhi relations as it tried to resolve problems around the Ngapuhi settlement talks. "I think it's just a little performance before Waitangi Day."

Mr Key expects to find out today if he has been invited after conflicting responses from a hui of marae organisers and Ngapuhi leaders yesterday.

He said if he was not asked to the marae or told he could not speak, he would forego travelling to Waitangi altogether despite other commitments such as the dawn service, meetings with iwi leaders and hosting his annual Waitangi breakfast.

He said it was up to others to decide what message the debate about the issue sent, but did voice concerns. "I do worry quite a lot actually about the images that come out of the lower marae because in the end those images go round the world. I think sometimes it reflects badly on our country."

He said even if he was invited to the marae, it was possible major protests about the Trans Pacific Partnership would mean he could not go.

He had committed to visit Waitangi every year and intended to stick to that if possible, but "there are plenty of other options".

"I will do everything within my power if I'm issued with an invitation to go. I still can't rule out that if there are very significant protests I can't practically get on the marae.

"There are all sorts of things beyond my control."

After the hui, marae elder Kingi Taurua said the majority had voted against Mr Key attending, which meant he would not be invited.

But marae trustee Emma Gibbs said the trustees were inviting Mr Key despite that vote. "If John Key comes to the gate I'm going to powhiri him, I don't care what anybody says.

"Whether we like him or not is irrelevant." However, Mr Key would not be given speaking rights beyond a response to the powhiri.

"It's not a political forum. It is in his favour to do as I ask simply because it holds mana without saying a flipping word." He shouldn't engage with protesters because he was there to engage with the home people.

Mr Key said the main aim of visiting Waitangi was to honour the Treaty but he went to the lower marae to discuss the issues of the day.

"I'm not going if I can't speak. It's pretty simple," he said. That would mean "I'd go on and completely ignore what [protesters] were saying or in fact not rebut the obvious things they are getting wrong and misleading everyone".

Ngapuhi leader Rudy Taylor said Mr Key would be invited and should have the usual speaking rights.

Pita Paraone, the chair of the Waitangi National Trust Board, said it would be a shame if Mr Key did not visit Waitangi at all.

Mr Key said it was tikanga (custom) to be welcomed on to Te Tii Marae before moving on to other events.

When it was pointed out former Prime Minister Helen Clark had often avoided Te Tii but still visited Waitangi, he said she had skipped the dawn service. "She didn't go to the lower marae, she didn't go to the dawn service, she occasionally went to the breakfast she held and didn't give a speech. I don't know."

The lower marae gets government funding to help cover the costs of hosting around Waitangi Day - this year it has a grant of $2500. The Waitangi Day Commemorations Committee which looks after events on the Treaty grounds itself has a grant of $119,500 to run events such as the dawn service while the Waitangi National Trust gets $20,000 for its hosting responsibilities.

Where is Te Tii Marae?
Also known as the Lower Marae, it is a Ngapuhi marae at the mouth of the Waitangi River just before the bridge to the Treaty grounds. Politicians are welcomed on to Te Tii on February 5 to acknowledge local iwi before visiting the national Treaty grounds including the Upper Marae on Waitangi Day. It has been a focus of protests against successive Prime Ministers and political leaders.

Have Prime Ministers always gone?
No. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark skipped Te Tii after she was brought to tears in 1998. She returned briefly in the early 2000s but gave up after she was jostled. Mr Key has gone every year since 2007.

Why does the Prime Minister want to go?
After Helen Clark stopped going, in 2007 he pledged to return every year if he was Prime Minister.

- NZ Herald

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