Better relations with Maori mean protests at Waitangi are no longer nationally relevant and many New Zealanders have cringed at recent events, Prime Minister Bill English says.

English today announced he would not attend Waitangi events at Te Tii Marae - saying it isn't acceptable to him that he can attend but not speak.

English will not attend the annual powhiri, and will celebrate Waitangi Day in Auckland - a decision that comes after John Key's no show last year.

His absence has been criticised by a Ngapuhi elder, and Labour leader Andrew Little says it will be a "black mark" against his Prime Ministership.


But English today said he did not want to see Waitangi Day "bogged down" with the same "roundabout discussions" as in previous years.

"A lot of New Zealanders cringe a bit on Waitangi Day when they see the way that the ceremonies have been conducted - the ceremonies, welcomes, the type of protest that has been there is recent years," English told media at Auckland Airport, before flying out for an official visit to Europe.

"And I'm pretty keen that we have a day where we are proud of it...there was a time when the protest at Waitangi was nationally relevant - 15, 20 years ago. That time has passed because we have made so much progress on relations with Maori and the Treaty settlements."

He was yet to confirm what he would do in Auckland on Waitangi Day: "I don't think we will be short on invitations".

A 'black mark'

Labour leader Andrew Little said, putting aside the lower marae visit, English should at the very least attend the dawn service at Waitangi on February 6.

"This is our country's national day. He is the Prime Minister, and he should be there...he needs to be there for all New Zealanders...his refusal to be there for that [dawn service] I think is a black mark against him as a new Prime Minister, who ought to be showing confidence in New Zealand and our sense of nationhood."

Little committed to attending Waitangi commemorations if elected prime minister, regardless of whether he was granted speaking rights.

Labour pointed to comments English had made as National leader in 2003, criticising Helen Clark for staying away from the lower marae but for visiting Waitangi.

"She is clearly trying to play to Pakeha who are sick of Waitangi and placate Maori at the same time. She should either go or not go," English told The Dominion Post at the time.


English's absence has been criticised as disappointing and unreasonable by Pita Paraone, a member of the Waitangi Day organising committee.

Paraone, also a New Zealand First MP, told the Herald that, as he understood it, English and others would have had full speaking rights in a forum after the powhiri.

The Prime Minister would have been permitted to speak during the powhiri, but not address certain political issues.

"He is the Prime Minister of our country, and he leads a Government that represents the Crown, who is a co-signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi," Paraone said.

"I just wonder whether or not this is an instance of pure arrogance, that they think they will be forming the new Government after the election this year. And they don't need to take into account local people's wishes."

Anti TPPA protestors Hikoi from Te Tii Marae to the Waitangi Treaty grounds during commemorations last year. New Zealand Herald photograph by Michael Craig
Anti TPPA protestors Hikoi from Te Tii Marae to the Waitangi Treaty grounds during commemorations last year. New Zealand Herald photograph by Michael Craig

Ngapuhi leader Kingi Taurua also said English's no show was disappointing, and said if the Prime Minister didn't attend he had no right to talk about the Treaty of Waitangi.

"Whatever the Prime Minister thinks, I don't give a damn. All I am there for is to commemorate the signatories...if Bill English has no commitment to that, then don't talk about the Treaty of Waitangi ever again."

English said that after the issues surrounding Key's attendance last year, his office sought clarification from marae kaumatua that he would be welcomed, with speaking rights.

"My office was advised I could attend the powhiri but not speak - conditions which are not acceptable to me. While I thank the marae committee for their invitation I will take the opportunity to attend commemorative events to celebrate this important day elsewhere."

English said he had accepted an invitation from the 60 iwi who comprise the Iwi Chair's Forum to lead a delegation of ministers to Waitangi on February 3.

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett will lead a Government delegation to the dawn service in Waitangi on Waitangi Day.

Asked if he would attend Ratana celebrations later this month, English said it appeared they clashed with the first Cabinet meeting of the year. If that was the case, a senior minister would attend.

Key pulled out of attending Waitangi last year, saying he had not had clarity on whether he could speak on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

At the time, Key said he had hoped to stick to his 2007 commitment to return every year, but said he wouldn't attend with a "gagging order".

Key instead spent Waitangi Day in Auckland at the NRL Auckland Nines tournament at Eden Park.

Government Minister Steven Joyce attended Waitangi, and was struck in the face by a pink dildo, thrown by anti-TPP protester Josie Butler. That incident made headlines around the world.

When he was Leader of the Opposition, Key said that he would go to Waitangi every year if he became Prime Minister. That pledge came after Helen Clark stopped going to annual commemorations at Te Tii Marae in 2004, after her party was rushed at and jostled as it went up the ramp to the marae.

In November, Taurua, who last year had called for Key to be banned from Te Tii Marae, said he had put his personal views aside, and believed the Prime Minister should be welcomed this year.

Representatives from Te Tii Marae, also known as the lower or bottom marae, and the Waitangi National Trust have held meetings to discuss this year's events.

Today, Taurua said there was likely to be a blanket ban on all political discussion on the lower marae during the powhiri. But English and other politicians would have had speaking rights after the welcoming ceremony, at a separate area.

"I don't know who gave him that information [that he would not have speaking rights]...maybe somebody from Waitangi is making trouble or stirring something up."

On English talking to the Iwi Chair's Forum, Taurua said the leaders on the forum were the Prime Minister's "favourite people".

"The Iwi leaders should come on to the marae and let the people hear what the Iwi leaders are saying to the Government."