Soon after Prime Minister John Key announced he would not be going to Waitangi, two Maori wandered across Te Tii Marae slowly waving a United Tribes flag chanting, "John Key abandons Waitangi. Dead man walking."

That may be the view of those at the marae, but Mr Key's decision not to attend after a week of to-ing and fro-ing and changing rules and conflicting messages will be welcomed by many who could not see why he should put himself through ritual humiliation at Te Tii every year.

Mr Key's decision is understandable. There is only so long a Prime Minister can sit and look as if he is at someone else's beck and call.

But those with a sense of the importance of Waitangi Day will feel some regret and disappointment - as they did when former Prime Minister Helen Clark decided she would not put the office of Prime Minister through such an event again. For Key to take such a step is even more astonishing, given he attacked Clark's decision.

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In 1995, the formal ceremonies at Waitangi were cancelled because of protests over the Government's fiscal envelope. This time it was something far less worthy - bickering over whether the Prime Minister could discuss the issues of the day. Te Tii has always been the place for that. Marae elders disagreed in the past, but praised Key for having the guts to front up anyway. Former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley returns to Waitangi every year and is warmly welcomed.

Key hoped to go somewhere with a "more festive atmosphere".

More festive maybe, but more meaningful for the leader of the nation? No.

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