Visitors to the splendid Treaty grounds at Waitangi probably assume the taxpayers of New Zealand happily pay for the facilities there. What could be a more worthy or natural public expense than the preservation of that place? In fact, it is run by a private trust with income from the estate of a former Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, supplemented by a charge to visitors.
Fortunately the grounds are not completely fenced and it is possible to reach the historic site for no charge, but the convenient entrance has always carried a fee. The entrance has been made attractive and informational, taking visitors through a building containing displays. The $12 door charge caused no audible outrage from the public, but in 2008 Helen Clark's Government argued, quite rightly, that New Zealanders should not have to pay. The Waitangi National Trust agreed and made entry free for everyone except overseas tourists who would be charged $25 to cover the lost income.
In recent years the trust has struggled to cover its costs, blaming a decline in tourism following the Global Financial Crisis. Last Saturday it restored a charge to New Zealanders. Unless they buy a multiple entry concession card entry will cost them $15. It will be no coincidence that the charge was not introduced before the election. It would have been hotly opposed by probably all parties but Act.
Prime Minister John Key agrees that New Zealanders should not have to pay an entry fee to the nation's birthplace but there may not be much he can do about it. As our columnist Brian Rudman explained yesterday, the Waitangi trust resolutely refuses to ask for government assistance. Lord Bledisloe made his bequest in the expressed hope that it would ensure the Treaty House and grounds would never be a burden on taxpayers. The trust seems to believe that to accept a government grant would dishonour the terms of their trust.
Lord Bledisloe made his gift to the nation in 1932. At that time there were good reasons to ensure its upkeep would not depend on tax revenue. For one thing, the world was in the depths of the Great Depression and governments were cutting spending to the bare essentials. But probably more concerning for the British Governor-General, New Zealand at that time remained indifferent to the Treaty. Its terms had been largely ignored since Britain had passed law-making and government to its settlers. The parchment was being eaten by moths in a forgotten cupboard, the house at Waitangi had fallen into decay and the grounds were just another grazing paddock.
The trust in its early years cannot have minded the government contributing to the cost of upgrading the grounds for the 1940 centenary of the Treaty, but its reluctance to depend on public finance was understandable for many more decades. It was not until 1973 that Waitangi Day was declared a national holiday and the Treaty began to be revived for historic Maori grievances to be heard. The Treaty grounds became an annual focus of discontent on Waitangi Day, abandoned for some years by prime ministers and even governors-general until very recently. It is no wonder the trust remains reluctant to let the site depend on government commitments.
Yet today it can surely count on an assured annual contribution. It would appear to require maybe $500,000 to be free to all, including visitors from overseas. The trust has provided fine facilities for a charge. Care would need to be taken to ensure free entry would not reduce the respect of custodians and visitors for the surroundings and the experience of history. Every New Zealander should find it a place they and the nation's guests can enter freely to see what New Zealand means - and sense its pride.