Many Maori will be sympathetic to Bill English's decision not to attend the fraught Waitangi Day powhiri.

It's easy to assume that debates about Waitangi Day fall along ethnic lines. We are sometimes inclined to think that all Maori think a certain way and that there is some sort of pakeha view on ethnicity issues. So we need to remember that no ethnic group is homogenous in its political interests, values, and opinions.
 
When it comes to the latest stoush over whether the Prime Minister should be attending the lower marae at Waitangi on February 6, we need to make sure we don't just lump all Maori together into an assumed political way of thinking. This notion is often reinforced by the media, politicians, and Maori leaders themselves.
 
In reality Maori are not going to be in consensus about the Prime Minister's attendance at the lower marae, whether there should be protests, or even whether there should be much focus on the Waitangi venue at all. Maori are - like pakeha -divided, and have diverse opinions on political issues.
 
So will Maori feel some sort of slight given that Bill English has chosen not to attend the lower marae at Waitangi on February 6? Some will. But despite what a lot of liberal pakeha might think - or hope - it's quite possible that a large proportion of Maori will be sympathetic to English's decision.
 
Even on something as controversial as the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed changes, many Maori were actually supportive. For example, opinion polling of Maori at the time, showed that 45 per cent - a plurality of those polled - actually supported Labour's legislation.
 
So it shouldn't be too surprising if many Maori agree with the PM. In fact today further divisions and confusion within Ngaphui have become apparent, with one prominent critic of Bill English's decision now apologising to the PM and sympathising with him - see the latest from Nicholas Jones: Ngapuhi elder now backs PM's Waitangi no show: 'I wouldn't go either'.

Cringe worthy for Maori

Former MP Shane Jones said the
Former MP Shane Jones said the "decision that the PM could go on the Marae but not talk makes a mockery of Marae culture". Photo / Mark Mitchell

English stated that many New Zealanders "cringe a bit" at what happens each year at Waitangi. He might have added that a large proportion of Maori do likewise.
 
Increasingly it's Maori who are the most critical of Maori leadership in the north with significant numbers of Maori leaders and commentators choosing to criticise the Waitangi Day arrangements at Waitangi.
 
It's worth looking back to what Maori leaders and commentators said about last year's debacle. Most of this criticism was directed at Ngapuhi - the hosts of the Waitangi Day celebrations - who were said to have made a hash of their invitation to the John Key. For example Willie Jackson called Ngapuhi's arrangements at Waitangi a "bout of madness", criticising the lack of leadership in Ngapuhi, and warning the tribe to sort out their problems.
 
Former MP Shane Jones was possibly the harshest, saying "Unfortunately all Tai Tokerau (Northland) tribes are tainted by the Te Tii Marae circus. Their decision that the PM could go on the Marae but not talk makes a mockery of Marae culture". He criticised the trustees of the marae as having "no mandate from other Maori in their decisions".
 
Even Hone Harawira was highly critical of Ngapuhi's actions, saying "They handled the whole thing really badly". He was joined by MPs from across the political spectrum, including Winston Peters and Labour's Peeni Henare, who also condemned Ngapuhi's mismanagement of the day.
 
Other commentators spoke out too. Te Kotahitanga co-chair Pita Tipene said Ngapuhi had embarrassed itself, and he called for a change to the way Waitangi Day is celebrated. Alan Duff called Ngapuhi's actions "mass bullying, at its worst".
 
This year, former Labour MP John Tamihere has given English's decision some support, saying "There's a time and a place for protest. But this Waitangi 'dial a protest' now - please. The prime minister not giving any attention to it will actually go down well" - see Newshub's Bill English's Waitangi Day no-show a 'smart move'. In addition, Tamihere says English is being smart in avoiding the conflicts, because "If you want to de-risk things, you don't give any nutters an opportunity to nut off in Waitangi, as they are prone to do".
 
Hirini Kaa - a lecturer in religious history at the University of Auckland - has a different point of view and asks: Why cringe at Waitangi?. He brings up the "toy" thrown at Steven Joyce last year as a reason to cringe, but argues that it's otherwise "inappropriate" to cringe about what goes on at Waitangi. He points out that other nations have much more cringe worthy elements to their national days. According to Kaa, even if English can't speak at Waitangi, he needs to go "to listen".

Is English race-baiting?

Some view English's decision not to attend the lower marae at Waitangi as being somewhat disingenuous. Photo / Michael Craig
Some view English's decision not to attend the lower marae at Waitangi as being somewhat disingenuous. Photo / Michael Craig

Some commentators view English's decision as being somewhat disingenuous, and perhaps even race-baiting. Jo Moir puts forward this view: "While many New Zealanders don't fit into the camp of cringing at the chaos that often ensues at Waitangi it's likely English is putting his money on the silent majority being embarrassed by discord on our national day. And it's an election year after all so is it a strategic move to steal some of NZ First's vote, and if so, will it sabotage any potential coalition arrangement with the Maori Party in the future?" - see: Prime Minister Bill English not having a bar of 'cringe' political protests at Waitangi.
 
She elaborates on her suspicions: "There's something iwi/Kiwi sounding about his comments explaining why he won't be going to events at Waitangi on the 5th and 6th of February, as is usual custom for the prime minister. While the "cringe" comment may have been a slip of the tongue, the sentiment around having had enough of the backwards and forwards arguments that go on at Waitangi every year was certainly calculated. It begs the question as to what sort of polling the National Party has been doing and what feedback they've had around tapping into separatist politics."
 
Similarly, Labour's Greg Presland views English's decision as a manufactured stoush, arguing that it's all about "scoring political points" - see: Refining that dog whistle. He asserts that there is no ban on English speaking at all, and he outlines the "compelling logic" for the Waitangi Day organising committee's arrangements for the PM.
 
And for more on the question of the arrangements put to the Prime Minister by the organising committee, as well details of other reactions to his refusal - see Eva Corlett's PM's Waitangi Day remarks 'disappointing' - Maori Party.

No consensus amongst the newspapers

Newspaper editorials have differing views on English's decision. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Newspaper editorials have differing views on English's decision. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Newspaper editorials have differing views. The Southland Times focuses more on the antics of sex toy throwing and chaotic management, suggesting it's common sense for the Prime Minister not to abide by this: "The bullying overtones associated with attendance at the marae have become a source of distaste for the wider public. Here is a place where legitimate opportunities to protest have been overshadowed by the indulgences of those who feel sufficiently righteous in their anger that they regard shabby behaviour as justified, even sanctified, by the occasion. Under the self-indulgent control of Ngapuhi, Waitangi itself has too often become a place of bad theatre, be it the mud flung at Don Brash or the on-the-spot rejection of speaking rights that reduced Helen Clark, seldom seen as a fragile figure, to tears" - see: An offer he could so refuse.
 
But the New Zealand Herald is less impressed with English's decision, saying the PM "should at least make an attempt" to attend, and that he needs to show the public "his commitment to everything Waitangi represents" - see: English gives up on Waitangi too soon. This editorial also gives a useful rundown on the attendance, or otherwise, of previous PMs.
 
And the Otago Daily Times warns that "Waitangi Day is quickly slipping from relevancy for many New Zealanders who are just looking forward to a day of holiday when, in fact, the Treaty is considered New Zealand's founding document" - see: The importance of Waitangi Day.
 
The most interesting editorial is the Dominion Post's What we should talk about on Waitangi Day. English's decision gets approval: "It is not acceptable to ask the country's leader to such an event and then ban him from speaking. This is a simple matter of good manners as well as fundamental democratic rights."
 
The editorial also welcomes strong debate, including protest: "The meeting at Waitangi is the ideal time to talk about the Treaty, and there is absolutely no reason why it has to be an exchange of platitudes and pleasantries. Both sides are entitled to say what they like and how they like. Ngapuhi can tell the Government exactly what it thinks about Treaty matters, and it needn't be mealy-mouthed. By the same token it must allow the Government the right to reply in just as blunt a manner."

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Calling out racism instead of Maori economic inequality

What is particularly important about the Dominion Post editorial is that it focuses on the fact that so many Maori are still at the bottom of the social and economic heap in New Zealand. It questions whether the Treaty is the answer to that inequality: "Much progress has been made. But there are still enormous gaps in prosperity and ordinary life chances between the two Treaty partners. In some ways this suggests that the Treaty settlement process, which is essentially a backward-looking process, cannot itself bridge those gaps. Other policy answers are needed, and these now centre on other issues such as social and education policy."
 
Unfortunately, liberal commentators are often much more comfortable fighting against perceived racism than they are about the economic inequality that blights the lives of so many Maori. Of course, the two are connected - racial discrimination has a cultural and economic relationship - but those with the loudest voices about racism show very little inclination to make those connections. It's much easier to "call out" so-called racists than it is to propose policies and programmes to make a real difference.
 
So although it seems that allegations and complaints about racism will characterise the year in politics coming up - and over the next few weeks in terms of Waitangi Day protocols - few people are actually debating how to fix the economic inequality faced by so many Maori (and pakeha). Maybe that is the main problem that should be addressed this year at Waitangi.
 
Finally, for a critique of how liberals and the left deal with Maori inequality, see John Moore's blog post, The politics of anti-racism and decolonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2017. He argues that "New Zealand now has a new Maori elite that wields significant economic and political power" but they don't take Maori inequality seriously.