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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Key's Waitangi decision a victory for those who long for a national day more like Australia's celebration

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John Key could surely have guessed the signing of the TPP might inflame matters. Photo / Doug Sherring
John Key could surely have guessed the signing of the TPP might inflame matters. Photo / Doug Sherring

The TPP protesters and John Key have something in common: they know that to wake Auckland up and make it listen, you need to target something people really care about: being stuck in traffic.

So while the Prime Minister used his State of the Nation speech the other day to belatedly expedite funding for the new congestion-relieving rail link and an east-west motorway connection, opponents to the trade deal yesterday swarmed across central Auckland, blockading motorway onramps and key junctions. (Intersectional politics, I think they call it.) It's hard to imagine too many pro-TPP motorists were converted to the cause, but protesters certainly got everyone's attention.

Up the escalator in the relative sanctuary of the characterless, calming SkyCity Convention Centre, the architects of the road-blockers' ire were assembled. Trade ministers from the 12 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership stood one by one to ink their signatures in a ceremony that offered no threat to summit diplomacy's reputation for eye-watering dullness.

Despite missing out on a full powhiri after Maori groups refused to take part, the visiting dignitaries were at least treated to some local culture, in the form of the drumming, chanting and even a haka from protesters assembled outside on Federal St.

Many of those protesters will have since relocated to Waitangi, but John Key managed to avoid the northern motorway traffic. Late yesterday afternoon he announced that, despite having earlier accepted an invitation from Ngapuhi to attend Te Tii marae, he would not be going to Waitangi after all. Following a series of mixed messages from the hosts, the failure to assure that he would be able to speak "politically" on the marae was cause to abandon the trip, Key said.

Prime minister John Key. Photo / NZME.
Prime minister John Key. Photo / NZME.


It would be over-egging the pavlova to suggest the protests in Auckland were instrumental in Key's decision - the first time he will not attend since becoming Prime Minister - but there is no doubt that the timing of the TPP signing has inflamed the situation generally. He may not have designed it that way, but Key signed off on holding a highly charged ceremony to sign a historic treaty that has raised concerns from Maori about issues of consultation and sovereignty immediately before the highly charged ceremonies marking the signing of a historic treaty that has raised concerns from Maori about issues of consultation and sovereignty. Provocative is a polite way to put it, especially in this sort of humidity.

Even if he had to bite lip on the TPP, and for all the contradictory signals of invitation and indignation from various factions of Ngapuhi, Key should be at Waitangi. He needn't have taken up the thorny offer to speak in the political tent, where Hone Harawira is MC; there would have been no shortage of opportunities to say his piece.

As it stands, the suspicion is that Key is in large part responding to those Waitangi dissenters who seethe and curse at him as he steps on to the lower marae. And I don't mean the protesters, but the mob of commentators who typically worship the ground upon which he walks but on this day shake their heads like disappointed kuia. These cheerleaders turned antagonists have been urging him for weeks, for years, to spurn Waitangi, go somewhere without the rabble and rancour. To his great credit, Key has resisted that clamour and gone all the same, as he'd said he would.

The decision to snub Waitangi in 2016, albeit one made easier by the disarray of Ngapuhi, is a victory for the crowd who bemoan, like clockwork every year: why can't we have a day more like the Australians' goodtime, easygoing parades'n'fireworks knees-up? Wave the flag, sing the anthem (even the Maori bit!), crack open a cold one and be done with all about those bloody people who refuse to just cheer up and stop complaining.

You know, like Australia Day. Or, as thousands of Aboriginal Aussies call it, Survival Day, or sometimes Invasion Day: a cause not for celebration but for sorrow. As Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson put it after receiving his Australian of the Year award in 2009, January 26 is "a day of mourning ... the day on which our world came crashing down". What a killjoy!

Notwithstanding the fact there is precisely nothing stopping New Zealanders across the country from unleashing fireworks and parades and balloons, nor the fact that the Waitangi celebrations are, for the most part, just that, celebrations, Australia Day is not a blast for everyone, but blighted by a jingoism that flows over into xenophobia, by drunkenness and by violence. Figures from Victoria show there are more assaults on January 26 than any other holiday. "Australia Day," said the state police commissioner, "is the most violent of our public holidays by a long shot."

Proving, at least, his innate New Zealandness, John Key this week expressed concern about the way protests at Waitangi might be seen overseas. "I do worry quite a lot actually about the images that come out of the lower marae because in the end those images go round the world," he told the Herald. "I think sometimes it reflects badly on our country."

The images of Australia Day that went around the world in 2016? A burly, slurring rugby league player making lewd advances at a woman, pissing on a sofa and simulating sex on a dog. I'll take the lower marae, I think.

The annual pilgrimage to Waitangi is a very long way from perfect. Very often one small incident grabs media coverage in wild disproportion to the rest of what happens. Violent protest is both indefensible and counterproductive. If there is a real threat to safety, that is another matter. But in the muddle and confusion and sometimes mayhem, Waitangi, 176 years on and counting, is where the New Zealand Prime Minister should be.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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