The lead-up to Waitangi Day has been akin to a Hollywood movie wedding in which both bride and groom have cold feet.

Everyone knows they'll sort it out in the end but everyone pretends they don't know this so they can better enjoy the complex, fraught but highly entertaining courting ritual.

This year is the closest things have come to a rift in which the Prime Minister sought solace in the arms of another rather than go to Te Tii Marae.

It's a unique situation. Key recklessly made his vows in advance, way back in 2007 when he pledged to return every year. This leaves the Prime Minister sitting on tenterhooks to find out whether he will be spurned so Ngapuhi can express their disgust through silence, or whether he will be invited on to be yelled at and abused, if not worse.


There are certain resemblances to the mating ritual of Australia's peacock spider, captured in David Attenborough's Life Story series. In that, the female sits in her nest as the males make a pilgrimage to shake their groove thing. If they do not dance well enough, they are promptly killed and their corpses left to litter the pathway to the dancefloor.

When one finally makes the grade, he is invited in for hanky panky. As he tries to leave afterward, she kills him anyway.

It has all worked out in the end and tomorrow Key will again walk down that aisle toward Ngapuhi with a chorus of protesters as guests.

Most of the bickering was between Ngapuhi leaders as they tried to resolve whether they wanted Key on the marae. Few can coin insults as well as Ngapuhi when they are insulting each other.

Elder Kingi Taurua wanted to spurn Key because of the signing of the TPP. When he was overruled by the trustees of the marae, he dismissed them as kitchen hands.

Another colourful Ngapuhi elder, David Rankin, earlier dismissed Taurua as the "self-appointed Waitangi Marae caretaker and cleaner" after hearing Taurua wanted to ban Key.

Marae trustee Emma Gibbs dismissed Taurua as "that bloody old bugger", adding a "bloody old bastard" for good measure.

Meanwhile yet another colourful Ngapuhi leader, Hone Harawira, took on the role of conciliator. He promised to safeguard Key's physical safety. This guarantee may carry some weight, given in the past Harawira's relatives have been at the forefront of protests against political leaders. But Harawira is Key's arch enemy so it is doubtful his Diplomatic Protection Squad were overly reassured.

In the end the biggest protection for Key's safety could be the weather. It is forecast to hose down on February 5 and 6. Those charged with security will be hoping rain has the usual effect of deterring many of the less stalwart protesters.

Each year, this palaver provokes commentary from onlookers about whether Key should simply abandon Waitangi altogether and go somewhere he is appreciated.

This time around, Ngapuhi did give Key enough wriggle room to justify staying away by saying he could not do a political speech. But Key has been disparaging about former Prime Minister Helen Clark's level of commitment to Waitangi Day events and now has to walk the talk.

The visit to Te Tii Marae also prompts hand-wringing as to why Waitangi Day is not more like Australia Day with a more festive ambience. The Prime Minister himself is guilty of comparing the two.

Yet Australia Day marks the arrival of settler ships to Australia. Waitangi Day marks a partnership between settlers and Maori. They do not compare.

Would we rather have a fractious national day and New Zealand's record on indigenous rights, albeit with patchy bits, or a celebratory one and Australia's record? For all the Maori objections, the TPP's carve out protection for Treaty of Waitangi obligations is part record of the difference.

In the meantime, tomorrow's ceremony may include confetti of barbed wire and curses rather than vows, but many wedding guests secretly hope for a bit of drama when the ceremony reaches the part of asking whether anyone has reason to object to the wedding.

It rarely happens. At Waitangi, we can be guaranteed this at least.