Waitangi Day has provided an insight to the character of successive prime ministers ever since Norman Kirk made it a national holiday. Sir Robert Muldoon faced down unruly demonstrations every time he went to Waitangi, but David Lange decided the day was best observed elsewhere and never went there.

Jim Bolger went for a few years, until the Governor-General and the flag were insulted. Jenny Shipley returned, holding an open forum at the nearby Te Tii Marae on the day before Waitangi Day.

Helen Clark stayed away for her first four years as Prime Minister, having been insulted when she tried to speak at a powhiri as Opposition leader. She returned in 2004 but her party was jostled as it entered the marae and she was rarely seen at Waitangi thereafter.

John Key declared he would attend every year he was prime minister and he did, until last year when the marae asked him not to speak on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.


Now Bill English has put himself in the tradition of Lange and Clark rather than Bolger, Shipley and Key. English has decided not to face the challenges at Waitangi, using the pretext that he has been asked not to speak on political issues at the powhiri on the marae.

He may argue he is making the same decision Key did last year, but there are differences. The TPP was a hot political issue this time last year and there were to be demonstrations against it at Waitangi. Naturally a prime minister would want to address the subject at that time.

The temperature is much lower this year. More important, the country has a new prime minister and the public does not yet have a reading on his commitment to everything Waitangi represents. Government insiders and iwi leaders may know his commitment to Treaty principles is second to none in the National Party, but he is Prime Minister now. That means the public looks to him to see where the Government is going, and his appearances matter.

He could have quietly agreed to the marae's request. A powhiri is a welcoming ceremony and an occasion for speeches of greeting and good will. There is plenty a prime minister can usefully say in the spirit of the powhiri - about Waitangi and the nation it founded - without descending to the usual arguments of politics.

To get to the powhiri, prime ministers and their attendants usually have to walk through a protest on the road outside the marae. Key was jostled as he walked to the gate with Sir Pita Sharples the first time he went there as Prime Minister but he declared it would not deter him from returning. The incidents outside the gate are all the public can see and remember of Waitangi Day each year, though they happen the day before.

Every prime minister faces the challenge of finding a way to move our attention from a small, poorly-led marae by ensuring something impressive can happen on the Treaty ground where history speaks and all should listen. This prime minister should at least make an attempt.