Bill English has been reminded of Waitangi criticism he levelled at Helen Clark after he decided not to attend the historic annual powhiri on New Zealand's national day.

The Prime Minister yesterday said that he would not attend Waitangi events at Te Tii Marae, as it was unacceptable to him that he could attend but not speak.

The Prime Minister's absence was criticised by a Ngapuhi elder, and Labour leader Andrew Little called it a "black mark" against his prime ministership.

Labour also pointed to comments English had made as National leader in 2003, when he criticised 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 said at the time.

English 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 type of protest that has been there in recent years," he said at Auckland Airport before leaving 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."

Little said English should at the very least attend the dawn service at Waitangi on February 6.

"... 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."

Pita Paraone, a member of the Waitangi Day organising committee and a New Zealand First MP, said as he understood it, English and others would have had full speaking rights in a forum after the powhiri. English would have been permitted to speak during the powhiri, but not address certain political issues.

"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."

Ngapuhi leader Kingi Taurua said if the Prime Minister didn't attend he had no right to talk about the Treaty of Waitangi.

English said he had accepted an invitation from the Iwi Chair's Forum to lead ministers to Waitangi on February 3. Deputy PM Paula Bennett will lead a Government delegation to the Waitangi dawn service on Waitangi Day.