Prime Minister John Key says he's upset that the Waitangi National Trust is charging New Zealanders $15 to enter the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds. There's an easy solution. Put some government money into the upkeep and running costs of the "birthplace of the nation".

We're not talking huge amounts. In 2008, after the Helen Clark Government bullied the trust into dropping the then $12 entry fee for New Zealanders, trust chairman Jeremy Williams said it would cost about $265,000 in lost ticket sales.

Compare that to the $30 million a year of government funding for Te Papa, the National Museum, or the $120 million being spent on Wellington's National War Memorial Park for the Gallipoli celebrations on Anzac Day next year.

If the country is flush enough to fund a $120 million park commemorating a disastrous massacre of New Zealanders 100 years ago, surely there's a bit of spare cash to ensure today's New Zealanders can visit for free the place where the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of our nation, was signed.


As of last Saturday, a four tiered system of entry fees operates. Far North locals can buy a Friends of Waitangi card for $5, entitling them to a year's free entry plus discounts at the shop and cafe. Other New Zealanders can buy the card for $25, or pay a one-off $15 entry fee. Overseas tourists pay $25. Accompanied children up to the age of 18 get in for free.

Last year, overseas visitor admissions raised $1.1 million, and guided tours, cultural performances and shop sales, $589,158. Another $1.5 million came from commercial leases and forestry operations from the land given by Governor-General Lord Bledisloe and his wife in 1932, to help fund their earlier gift of the Treaty grounds. Staff costs and other expenditure totalled $3.1 million.

Chief executive Greg McManus says the trust went through "a major cost reduction exercise last year" including cutting staff, but "the fickle international visitor market" created a "need to broaden the revenue base".

Part of the problem is that the trust board resolutely refuses to ask for government assistance. Said Mr McManus: "the trust has never sought it in the past and is not seeking it now. The trust has always operated under the view that it should be self-sufficient and not rely on public funding, hence the fact that all visitors, including New Zealanders, paid an admission fee from 1937 to 2008. It became obvious early on that it could not be financially independent and offer free admission at the same time."

This belief is based on the claim, found in trust and other tourist documentation that Lord Bledisloe stipulated that the estate was never to be a burden on the taxpayer.

Mr McManus says he has not been able to pin this stipulation down, but that over the years this belief has become conventional wisdom among board members. The board is made up of descendants of Maori signatories of the Treaty and early settler families, with - ex officio - the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Conservation and Maori Affairs.

The idea that Lord Bledisloe was against government funding is not true. In his letter to Prime Minister George Forbes in November 1932 proposing to give a further 526ha of Waitangi land which could be used for investment forestry, he said "the ultimate revenue ... to be shared in equal parts by the Government and the Waitangi Trust."

He was proposing this "to remove anxiety relative to the financial position of the trust at its inception."


He also said he would donate money towards the rehabilitation of the Treaty house, "if the Government can see its way to do the same".

Shortly afterwards, Mr Forbes announced the new gift, with a renovation fund in which the Bledisloes would give 1000 and the government 500.

Before the 1940 Waitangi centenary celebrations, the Government again spent money on the Treaty grounds.

Not that arguing over whether the Bledisloes wanted to protect governments from "the burden" of maintaining the Treaty grounds is relevant today.

Certainly in 1932, Waitangi was not the symbol of nationhood it has since become. Lord Bledisloe said what triggered his gift was "the premises were in such a sad condition of decay and there was a real danger of the old British Residency being carried off to America by a speculator".

But today, the idea of the Government regarding the upkeep of the nation's birthplace as a burden, seems as bizarre as charging visitors. It's time the trust board and the Government talked.