Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Sideshows detract from main event

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Prime Minister John Key listens to Titewhai Harawira at Waitangi. Photo / Natalie Slade
Prime Minister John Key listens to Titewhai Harawira at Waitangi. Photo / Natalie Slade

The most amusing clip from Monday's Waitangi Day celebrations was a protester going off script and denouncing the matriarch of all trouble makers, Titewhai Harawira, for choosing to play Queen of England this time round.

The protester was annoyed that Mrs Harawira had decided to accessorise her summer outfit by hanging not just Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae from her arm, but Prime Minister John Key as well.

You had to sympathise with the heckler. Mrs Harawira's twists and turns are hard to keep up with. Only last May, Te Tii Marae elders were threatening to ban her from the very same marae after she denounced Maori Party leaders for, variously, lacking balls, being a snake and, jointly, hanging off Mr Key's jockstraps. Now there she was, playing the grande dame and hanging off any Crown appendage going.

For those with a sense of irony and history, Monday's theatrics gave the occasion a sense of authenticity.

Participants in the original 1840 assembly would have felt right at home. At the 1840 show, there was much spitting of the dummy, and theatrical exits. Governor Hobson and naval captain Nias had a spat over the size of the gun salute for the Queen's representative. The governor wanted 15 rounds, Mr Nias gave him 11 and told him that's your lot.

Then Catholic Bishop Pompallier did a Titewhai and grabbed the seat next to the governor on the official dais before the Protestant British missionaries realised what was happening. As a result the Brits packed a sad, one muttering, "I'll never follow Rome." As for Maori, signing away their lands was not the only thing occupying their minds. Some chiefs stormed off after missing out on free tobacco being handed out by the British predecessors of the modern Rothmans' girls. Others left when the British-supplied food ran out.

Still in 1840, these were the sideshows to the main event. Unfortunately, these days, the sideshows have become the main event, dominating the news and talkback and national consciousness. Any reflections on the journey thus travelled are lost in the collective sigh - or worse - about the antics of the protesters, and a general desire to quickly move on.

Helen Clark's decision in 2003 to spoil the Harawira family and friends' annual day of high jinks by staying away from Waitangi on Waitangi Day, worked a treat. She'd endured the ritual abuse in years past, and no doubt recalled her friend Dame Catherine Tizard, when Governor-General, being spat on by Hinewhare Harawira in 1995, resulting in a six-month jail term. Ms Clark saw no reason to go through the insults any more.

Last weekend, Prime Minister John Key discovered how mercurial the "celebrations" can be, being forced to make a strategic withdrawal after the protests turned ugly. He claimed he wasn't scared, just that he couldn't be heard so saw no reason to stick around. Whatever. What surprised me was he said he'd be back next year. Why?

I'm all for seeing politicians getting a good roasting. But unrest at Waitangi is so predictable, it's become a place of ritual humiliation for our leadership. They head north knowing whatever they say, they risk being randomly spat at, threatened, hit with a wet singlet, who knows what. And as a consequence there's a flurry of red- neck responses on talkback and letters to the editor, along with a universal sigh of despair from the rest of us.

The move by the Maori Council yesterday to ask the Waitangi Tribunal to stop the Government's sale of shares in four state-owned energy companies until it considers a Maori claim over the country's fresh water resources, highlights the much more powerful weapon in the Maori arsenal than protest. Resort to the law courts.

Getting back to marking Waitangi Day, I'm with historian Buddy Mikaere's call in Saturday's Herald to turn it into a proper national day, full of fun and speechifying and reflection and concerts and yes, if people want, protests. There should also be an emphasis on education. The changes in approach and attitude towards redressing Maori grievances have been remarkable over the past 40 or so years. But it is obvious from the casual racism littering talkback and online discussions, that many New Zealanders have not caught up with the changes - or understand them.

Even our leadership needs help. Mr Key's remarkable claim last week that Section 9 of the State-Owned Enterprises Act, which states the Crown must not act in a manner inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty is merely "symbolic" exposed how widespread is the ignorance. As is his hope that an "elegant" solution can somehow solve everything.

It's in the interest of the protesters and New Zealand as a whole, that the significance of section 9 and the many other changes achieved in these 40 years becomes part of the collective knowledge. That seems a much better focus of Waitangi Day than hog-tying it to the whims of a few protesters in the Far North.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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