For a "living" culture to be worthy of that designation, it should demonstrate an ability to adapt and grow in an almost organic way with the community it serves.

The alternative is for a culture to remain emblematic of a period in the past. Cultures in these circumstances tend eventually to acquire the traits of dusty museum exhibits: revered for their antiquity but largely irrelevant.

What happens, though, when there is a shrill call for a cultural practice to be changed abruptly? This is the question facing Parliament's Speaker, David Carter, who has sought a review of Maori protocols at Parliament following concerns expressed by Labour MPs Annette King and Maryan Street at being asked to move from the front row of a powhiri at the start of the Youth Parliament a few months ago.

Carter's response is instructive for the attitude it reveals towards aspects of Maori culture. He wants to "modernise" certain protocols so that they are "acceptable to a diversified Parliament". On the surface, this seems like a fair undertaking, yet several aspects deserve closer consideration.


The first is the appropriateness of two seasoned MPs questioning a protocol whose tenets are long-established and well known to the complainants. If seating arrangements at powhiri were so pressing to these MPs, presumably they would not have waited so many years before requesting action. A cynic might suggest there are other motives at play, but what these could be is anyone's guess.

Then there is the matter of who is the arbiter of Maori culture. Surely it is the role of the iwi that has mana whenua status over the place where Parliament is sited to make such determinations about the rites of powhiri which take place there. The Speaker has indicated his wish to consult with various iwi in order to "modernise protocol ... in a way that respects Maori tradition", but such a concession rests on a paradox. If you truly respect a cultural tradition, you would not take it upon yourself to alter it. Respecting tradition in this context requires respecting the seating arrangements that accompany powhiri. Carter's depiction of the requirements as "embarrassing" is hardly a respectful start to the discussion.

The other aspect relating to the proposal to "modernise" the powhiri is the issue of their purpose. Too often, it appears that in many government departments, the underlying reasons for powhiri remain unknown to participants. For some, powhiri are little more than an obligatory nod to the country's indigenous culture before the "real" business is dealt with. Rather than tinkering with the protocols, maybe effort would better be expended in learning about the cultural nuances and rationale of powhiri.

Ironically, in this sudden urge to modernise one of the surviving elements of our indigenous culture, it has been overlooked that parliamentary protocols are thick with moth-eaten practices that persist despite their irrelevancy. Perhaps Parliament should fossick around the accumulation of its own arcane practices and undertake some house-cleaning. After all, there is nothing better than leading by example.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University