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Police have defended security arrangements for Prime Minister John Key at Waitangi after two men breached his security cordon and grabbed hold of his jacket as he entered Te Tii Marae.

Despite heavy security, the men took advantage of the moment Mr Key was leaning in to hongi Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples to jostle the PM, yelling he would not be going on to the marae.

Mr Key was unable to fend them off because of his broken right arm. Guards quickly removed the pair.

Dr Sharples was also hit in the scrap and Education Minister Anne Tolley was knocked aside.

Two men, aged 19 and 33 and from the Far North, were charged with assault.

The police Waitangi operations manager, Inspector Chris Scahill said: "The police action was quick and decisive in immediately removing both men from the scene to prevent any potential further escalation.

"I am comfortable with the police security arrangements for the Prime Minister and other VIPs during the course of the Waitangi celebrations."

Mr Key would not comment on whether his security had failed him by allowing the protesters to get close enough to grab him.

"They will go back and reflect on the situation, but I think it surprised everybody, to be honest."

Kaumatua on Te Tii Marae and Dr Sharples were quick to condemn the actions of the two men.

The protest appeared to come from nowhere - there were few banners around compared to other years - and none of the marae leaders knew those involved.

Yesterday's gathering was widely expected to be a celebratory event - partly because of Mr Key's relationship with the Maori Party and his move to allow the Maori flag to fly next year.

Mr Key appeared afterwards to be angered by the attack, saying he was not prepared to let "a couple of glory-seekers" tarnish the whole day.

"The relationship and partnership we have with the Maori Party is very important, but it's also very symbolic. And I'm not going to let the actions of one or two glory-seekers somehow put a very different perception on the progress we are making."

The incident blighted Mr Key's first visit to Te Tii as Prime Minister and also gave him a taste of why his predecessor, Helen Clark, had opted out of visiting the marae.

He made it clear he did not hold the marae responsible and the incident would not stop his returning, but he appeared annoyed that the protesters had marred the day, labelling them "glory-seekers out of sync with the rest of New Zealand".

"[Waitangi Day] will be a day of celebration, it will be about dialogue and understanding each other's points of view - not thumping each other."

Dr Sharples said he did not know what the protesters' point was and he didn't give it "any importance at all".

He said that in the past, protest had been a valuable part of the day but he questioned whether it was necessary at this time.

"Out of the protests at Waitangi have come some great things, so let's give credit to those days of protesting."

Veteran activist Titewhai Harawira told the Herald that after 30 years of "real hard struggle", there was no need for such physical protest at this time.

"We've moved past all of that. We are now at a stage where we're having a conversation with the Government. Let's not walk past this huge opportunity."

Mrs Harawira, who had taken Mr Key's left arm to walk him on to the marae, told the Prime Minister: "I don't know where those people came from, John, and I want to apologise."

Speaking during the formal welcome, kaumatua Kingi Taurua said:

"I am disappointed because it doesn't bring good to the mana of the marae. I want to uphold the mana of the marae, so I apologise."

Mr Key used his speech to outline what Waitangi Day meant, describing the "courage and vision" those who signed the Treaty had shown and the results National's partnership with the Maori Party had already secured.

He said at next year's Waitangi Day a Maori flag would fly alongside the New Zealand flag. "That day will be another tiny step and a day which has a sense we are getting closer together, not further apart."

Maori MP Hone Harawira said he could not condemn the protesters, given his own past as an activist. However, he said it was a different situation from 2004 when Helen Clark was jostled and heckled going on to the marae.

This time, Labour leader Phil Goff and about 20 MPs were warmly welcomed by a smaller crowd than that which gathered to see Mr Key.

It was the first time a Labour leader had been on Te Tii since the 2004 incident.