Tariana Turia: Cultural traditions must remain

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We can develop practices and procedures for Parliament that reflect the dual heritage of New Zealand.

Protocols of Maori and Pakeha can be integrated without compromising the integrity of either. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Protocols of Maori and Pakeha can be integrated without compromising the integrity of either. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Herald editorial of January 7 ("Speaker's look at Maori rules overdue") would sit well alongside some of those recently republished from 150 years ago, during the Land Wars, when subjugation of Maori people and their rights was clearly the Herald's editorial policy.

The monocultural and colonial assumptions about Maori protocols make depressing reading; for example, the view that Maori protocols are "unsustainable" and therefore must be "modernised", because "the principle of equal status for women must hold sway" in Parliament.

The editorial suggests, in other words, that there is no room in Parliament, or in New Zealand society, for two cultures to live side by side; that Maori culture must yield because it is outdated; and Maori could "help" by agreeing to this.

I, and generations of my ancestors, absolutely reject that view, and also the assumption that tangata whenua protocols infringe the rights or denigrate the status of women.

The Maori Party will oppose, in the strongest terms, any move to debase or corrupt the process of powhiri, and we will be unwilling to participate in any process which fails to comply with the significant elements of this sacred ceremony of engagement.

Parliament, of all places, is where tradition is honoured. The Speaker's daily procession to the Chamber, accompanied by the Serjeant-at-Arms wielding a mace, is a reminder that the constitutional independence of the Parliament must be guarded and protected.

That ritual is perhaps 800 years old, dating from medieval times, but there is no call for that tradition to be updated. Nor would it be enhanced if the Serjeant-at-Arms were to carry an AK47 assault rifle: what is important is the symbolism and the meaning of the ritual.

Tangata whenua protocols function perfectly well for those who understand what they mean, and who can accept the validity of viewpoints different from their own.

We will not accept any attempt to bastardise the cultural practices of tangata whenua by artificial modifications to a ceremony which has been upheld with the greatest of pride by whanau, hapu and iwi throughout Aotearoa.

Collisions between our protocols and prevailing attitudes are most often the result of misunderstanding born of ignorance.

The editorial notes that the two MPs who caused embarrassment by sitting on the paepae, the speaker's bench, had missed the pre-briefing and explanation of the powhiri because they arrived late for the formal ceremonies. They may well have been embarrassed, not because they felt insulted by Maori protocols, but simply because they had no intention of causing any offence, even unwittingly.

Unfortunately, their actions and the Herald's reportage have overshadowed the enthusiastic participation by hundreds of other men and women in a formal welcome to Parliament that has special significance for New Zealanders.

However, the proposed review of protocols by the Speaker creates an opportunity for Parliament, and the nation, to discuss these issues more deeply.

Cultural traditions can be integrated without compromising the integrity of either tangata whenua or Westminster traditions by looking at the underlying meaning of all the rituals of Parliament, and how we want to express our cultural identity as New Zealanders.

We could develop protocols, practices and procedures for Parliament that reflect the dual cultural heritage of Aotearoa New Zealand that was founded, protected and guaranteed by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

People with proud traditions, as New Zealanders have, will not give them up easily. The experience of the New Zealand Army shows this.

Military traditions that are steeped in blood and death have become sacred. The idea of incorporating Maori designs into the belt and sash of the dress uniform, to recognise the huge contribution and sacrifices that tangata whenua have made to the army and to the nation over generations, was highly contentious. Change was not easy but, with goodwill and thorough discussion, agreement was reached based on mutual respect and understanding.

Now the New Zealand Army's formal symbols and protocols proclaim the proud military traditions of both founding cultures, without compromising the cultural integrity of either one.

The process of developing appropriate protocols for Parliament will no doubt take time and commitment, but when it is done, we will be a richer, stronger, more unified and powerful nation for it.

What we need is thoughtful opinion leadership to help all New Zealanders to open their hearts and minds to change.

The Herald is a powerful voice, and I urge you to engage in the discussion, to continue the "constitutional conversation" as recommended recently by the Constitutional Advisory Panel, and not to simply dismiss the cultural traditions of tangata whenua without fully understanding their meaning.

Tariana Turia is co-leader of the Maori Party and MP for Te Tai Hauauru.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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