Claire Trevett

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

Waitangi Day: Dirty confrontation not in Brash style

By CLAIRE TREVETT

As the hushed crowd shuffles into place for the Waitangi Day dawn karakia, two Maori women on the sidelines spot a known face.

"There's Don Brash," one says.

"What an egg."

There is some discussion about how nice it would be to have some eggs to throw at the egg.

"You'd probably miss," one points out. Because you can't really see him in this dark."

They think he would be disappointed at that. His appearance was a "publicity stunt", they decide.

"He wants something to happen so he will be in the headlines again. That's why he is here. When was the last time National was in the headlines?" and a snort of laughter.

Dr Brash was in the headlines that day, his serious face looming out from television screens and newspapers, smeared in mud.

Don Brash was a Waitangi Day virgin. And his visit was just one more bone of contention for Maori already riled by the Government's seabed and foreshore proposals.

"Go home," was the first thing he heard when he reached the car park next to Te Tii Marae.

Georgina te Heuheu left the whare runanga to calls of support.

In Waitangi, Dr Brash was very much persona non grata.

The mud-throwing at the marae on the eve of Waitangi Day will be the enduring image of his visit.

It was his second time walking in the world of Maori since that speech. The first was at Ratana, when he learned political misjudgment can be in as small a thing as a choice in hat.

The Panama hat he wore that day drew comparisons with colonialists.

At Waitangi, the head was bare, the hat banished by media minders.

But his Waitangi outing left him with more serious matters to contend with than sartorial blunders.

Dr Brash is not used to the blunderbuss nature of confrontation Waitangi-style.

Confrontation, Brash-style, does not consist of "talking to each other in insults".

It consists of a reasoned exchange of views, his made with one hand moving up and down, fingers rigid, and salt and pepper eyebrows shifting above grave spectacled eyes.

The mud-throwing did not throw him off his stride.

Back at the hotel, he said facing discord was no novelty, but it was the first time it had become physical.

Addressing a gathering of farmers "who thought I should have been hung, drawn and quartered" when the New Zealand dollar was soaring at 71c to the United States dollar was no walk in the park for the then Reserve Bank governor.

But all they hurled was insults.

He could not explain how he stayed so calm. " I don't think it was personal. I think it was anger at what people [see as] an anti-Maori stance."

In a quiet moment, he turned to thank Mita Harris - a softly spoken Maori whose father's advice for the day was: "Mita, stand fast, stand tall and don't wear a tie. It might get ugly out there and a tie will hinder you."

The realisation he had come in for some flak was not lost on Dr Brash.

"Mita, I especially appreciate your willingness to come with me, in the circumstances." The gratitude was sincere, not overheard by many.

Dr Brash said his reasons for coming to Waitangi were two-fold.

First, to debate his proposals with Maori on their home turf. Second, because the Treaty of Waitangi was an important and unique document for New Zealand, although it had become a "source of guilt and anger".

He had no show of achieving the first. He was rendered mute after he turned away from Te Tii Marae as a form of protest against the media ban, and his offer to speak was challenged at the dawn service.

There was no epiphany for Dr Brash from being at the heartbeat of the nation on a day which has moved more cynical people than he.

He left feeling "a degree of sadness" and espousing the same messages he went in with.

The only light in the dank tunnel that was Dr Brash's Waitangi Day was the polls lifting for National as a result of those views.

Many might think that having a good suit smeared in mud and being verbally abused might put Dr Brash off the trek to Waitangi next year.

But reflecting on his inaugural Waitangi Day appearance, Dr Brash thought they might be wrong.

"I don't think 'enjoy' is the right verb, but I have no regrets at all. I can't yet say I'll definitely be back next year, but I'd like to be."

In the meantime, he said he would meet Maori groups over the next few months, hoping for some of the Brash-style confrontation.

"I don't think throwing mud is a constructive way to have a debate."

Herald Feature: Maori issues

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