John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Tensions all but gone from Waitangi

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With Maori more at ease each year, true celebration may be on cards.

Waka bobbing in the waters of the Bay of Island are usually a feature of Waitangi Day. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Waka bobbing in the waters of the Bay of Island are usually a feature of Waitangi Day. Photo / Sarah Ivey

On the way to Waitangi we stopped at a coffee bar in Whangarei. The attendant said he had grown up in the Bay of Islands but wouldn't go where we were going. Not with all the trouble up there.

At Paihia, a motellier said the same. She wouldn't recommend it. My son-in-law, who has been out of the country for most of the past seven years, was astonished. Where else in the world would a hospitality business talk down the national anniversary in its vicinity?

The motellier had not the slightest idea what really happened around the corner from her. She knew only what was in the news and it was always trouble.

When we went around the corner there was no sign of trouble or, sadly, of much life.

No waka were in the bay where there were usually six or seven by early afternoon on the eve of Waitangi Day. Not many flags were flying over at the marae. In the field where thousands of Maori have normally set up camp around kiosks and display tents, there were markedly fewer about. Why?

The same issue that brought busloads of protesters to the place last year - asset sales - is still around. In the big tent, members of the Maori Council were sitting ready to hear questions about their case before the Supreme Court to stop the Government selling shares in power companies.

But the questions, when we looked in, were mostly about representation in northern land claims, not the water rights the council is asserting against the power floats.

If Waitangi is an annual reading of the nation's temperature, this year's is encouraging. Could it be that the Maori mood has moved beyond protest? Hone Harawira, whose Mana Party brought most of the busloads last year, is moving quietly around without his black shirt and shades this year, greeting his constituents like a kindly uncle.

His mother has won a battle with the marae leaders that morning, escorting the Prime Minister to his welcome. That became the story to reinforce the usual impressions of Waitangi in the public mind.

But in truth the temperature has been much lower than the news would suggest for a long time. The trouble now is, not much else is happening up there.

Across the bridge from the marae, on the lawn of the Copthorne hotel, politicians, officials and other guests of the Governor-General gathered behind a security barrier and sipped wine in the afternoon sun. The Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, made a speech about the gift of the Treaty grounds by his predecessor, Lord Bledisloe.

Labour leader David Shearer had made news that morning with the splendid suggestion that the New Year honours be moved to Waitangi Day but he sounded ambivalent about attending Waitangi.

I asked his deputy, Grant Robertson, why it was that Labour found Waitangi so much harder than National does. David Lange wouldn't go near the place. Helen Clark stayed away when she became Prime Minister. It wasn't just the crying incident when she was in opposition. The mild religiosity of proceedings was, I think, anathema to her.

Robertson thought it was because Labour is naturally closer to Maori than National and when difficulties occur they go deeper, "like a family argument".

I wondered: if Maori Party voters return to the "family" next year, will they feel wiser for their experience of political independence? Possibly.

I was still pondering that thought as we wandered up the path to the Treaty House to watch the navy's sunset ceremony on the lawn. Some years the crowd has encircled the Treaty grounds to watch the band "beat the retreat" and lower the ensign. This time we were all at one end.

Low attendance has its advantages. On the walk back I was alongside the Prime Minister. Why did he think it so quiet this year? Possibly, because it was on a Wednesday, he said. Maybe, but that hasn't made it more peaceful in the past.

I wanted to talk about where Maori politics were going but he didn't. He wanted to talk about an educational initiative for Maori and Pacific boys at Auckland Grammar School.

It was an interesting story about a hostel set up within the grammar zone and, according to him, getting great results for the boys selected. He told the same story in his speech next morning, but it didn't make the news. Television seized instead on a line in the speech lamenting Maori protesters.

I'm surprised he left that line in on Wednesday. It jarred with the temper of this Waitangi Day - just as protests have jarred in years past with the progress the Maori Party represents.

Now the day has gone too quiet. Could it be ready at last for a real celebration?

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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