By RUTH BERRY and CLAIRE TREVETT
Prime Minister Helen Clark faced a scrum of protesters on Waitangi's Te Tii Marae yesterday in one of the worst receptions faced by a Government for years.
The pelting of Opposition leader Don Brash with mud earlier in the day also represented the worst welcome for National for some time.
There were warnings that Helen Clark would face further confrontations today, despite trying to play down yesterday's ugly incident.
Her party of MPs and officials were confronted by protesters who tried to prevent them from entering the meeting house at the marae.
Punches were thrown on the fringes of the group, as MPs and police tried to protect Helen Clark and others including Titewhai Harawira, as the party conducted a pincer movement to the meeting house amid shouts of abuse.
Helen Clark said later that although there had been some "outright rudeness", she had not been disturbed by the jostling, nor felt unsafe at any time.
But Te Tai Tokerau MP Dover Samuels said: "I copped a few on the back, there were a few aimed at the Prime Minister that got me. People were throwing things."
One woman shouted as the Prime Minister left: "You're nothing but a thief, Helen Clark."
Labour MP John Tamihere, who struggled to hold back the supporters and protect Helen Clark, said he was "pissed off" at the display.
"She is the premier of the nation. It was unacceptable."
Some people on the marae were also upset. "It's not good, not good," said Moana Herewini.
"It is quite hurtful to see what they have done to our rangatira [chief] Helen. Maori have absolutely fragmented any healing."
The anger was far more intense than that directed at Dr Brash, who was splattered with mud when he arrived at the marae gates.
He refused to enter after Maori wardens confirmed a partial media ban was operating.
A number of Helen Clark's party and others on the marae were appalled at the treatment of the Prime Minister's party.
One said Helen Clark was shaking and distressed by the time they entered the meeting house.
MP Tariana Turia was pulled off the marae by her own Whanganui people who feared for her safety, but her spokesman said later she had not felt unsafe.
Police numbers swelled to about 50 by the time the group left the marae, again confronted with heavy shoving and pushing.
But Helen Clark, Mrs Harawira and protest leaders said the event reflected the depth of feeling people had over race relations and the foreshore and seabed issue in particular.
Helen Clark said the issue had created a lot of grief and looking back to the past, and this had to be dealt with. "I don't think we should ... walk away from a debate that has to be had."
But it would not force changes to the Government's foreshore and seabed policy.
Mrs Harawira described the day as wonderful, saying people were entitled to express their anger "over the theft of the whenua [land]" and nobody had been hurt.
She praised Helen Clark for having the courage to turn up. Her son Hone Harawira, in charge of co-ordinating events, is understood to have told the group inside the meeting house that he was glad they had "got the bash" as it conveyed the strength of feeling in the North.
Mr Samuels said the treatment spelt doomsday for future attendances at Te Tii.
But Helen Clark said on its own her reception yesterday would not be enough to convince her not to visit the marae again.
She would not discuss Dr Brash's treatment or accusations by Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia that Dr Brash had pulled a "stunt".
Several Labour MPs believe Dr Brash deliberately courted publicity and sparked conflict by turning up at the marae and refusing to enter once told a partial media ban - already well signalled - was in place.
Dr Brash denied this, saying he was standing up for the rights of all New Zealanders and the media were their eyes and ears.
He labelled it a race ban, but only a handful of media were allowed to take equipment on to the marae and several Maori media organisations and journalists also faced the ban.
Media were welcome to enter the grounds as long as they left their equipment outside.
Dr Brash said he was saddened by the day's events and did not condone what had happened to Helen Clark.
Activist Ken Mair, who did not take part in attempts to block the Prime Minister's entrance, warned it was a "small taste" of things to come if the foreshore and seabed policy was not changed.
Maori Language Commissioner Patu Hohepa said the foreshore issue had dominated forum discussions held on the marae during the day.
- Additional reporting: NZPA