Iwi help will show culture has confidence to adapt.
Over the years, there have been several instances in which Maori protocol has collided with women's rights. In such cases, there is always a temptation to seek the path of least resistance. To hope, in effect, that belittled women will bow to cultural sensitivity and not make a fuss about it. On most occasions they have opted against the fuss, with the result that nothing much has changed. Full marks, then, to Parliament's Speaker, David Carter, who has been moved to seek a review of Maori protocols at Parliament and made it clear he intends to "modernise" them.
His action arises from a powhiri for a Youth Parliament a few months ago when Parliament's longest-serving woman MP, Annette King, and her Labour colleague Maryan Street were asked to move from the front bench for the ceremony. Most of these taking part had been told in advance that, in accordance with the protocol that has operated at Parliament for 15 years, women would not be sitting in the front row. But Ms King and Ms Street arrived late and sat alongside the Speaker. They were asked to shift by Kura Moeahu, who assists Parliament's kaumatua, Rose White-Tahuparae.
Mr Carter believes this was embarrassing for the two women, as it must have been, whether they want to say so or not. It also should not happen. It would be different if the powhiri occurred on a marae. There, the protocol, which has its origin in women being better protected from the potential danger posed by strangers if they sit at the back, can prevail. But this incident occurred in a place where the principle of equal status for women that prevails in virtually every other aspect of society must hold sway.
The parliamentary protocol, which was adopted with the oversight of the Wellington iwi, Te Atiawa, is obviously well-meaning in its recognition of Maori culture. But, ultimately, it is unsustainable. Mr Carter is also well-meaning when he says he wants to modernise parliamentary protocol with the guidance of Te Atiawa and other iwi and in a way that respects Maori tradition. But there is no point creating a hybrid that tries to marry Maori protocol and women's rights into a package that seeks to be acceptable to all parties. The outcome would probably be a muddle that provides no answer and satisfies no one.
Maori could go a long way towards helping Mr Carter by moving with the times. A living culture does not hold its ceremonial protocols to be set in stone.
Maori women should not have to fight a long battle to change their seating position on the marae or to earn the right to speak. Still, only a minority of marae allow speaking rights. This was highlighted in 1998 when Prime Minister Helen Clark was reduced to tears at Te Tii Marae at Waitangi when she was berated by Titewhai Harawira for being allowed to speak in the wharenui.
The seating issue also attracted national controversy again in 2005 when a Corrections Department staffer, Josie Bullock, was asked to stand behind men at a graduation ceremony held on department property. Since then, too little has changed, as evidenced by the treatment accorded Ms King and Ms Street. Mr Carter's quest to modernise the protocol is overdue.
The Speaker probably hopes that Te Atiawa will hear his concern and take the initiative in devising a protocol for powhiri at the nation's capital. All iwi should take an interest in the review. This is an opportunity for Maori to make a statement that would resonate far beyond the precincts of Parliament. It would demonstrate the culture has the confidence to be modernised.