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PM’s choice to stay away on Waitangi Day has precedent

Opinion Piece

New Prime Minister Bill English has created a storm with his announcement that he will not attend the annual event at Waitangi this year because he has not been granted speaking rights at the powhiri.

Although he has been told he can speak at an event after the powhiri, English said just before leaving for his first overseas trip that he would still not go, claiming that decision respected New Zealanders who wanted to be proud of their country.

Sadly, English is right when he says a lot of New Zealanders cringe a bit on Waitangi Day when they see the way the ceremonies and welcomes have been conducted and the type of protests in recent years, and like him are pretty keen to have a day to be proud of.

There was a time where protest at Waitangi was nationally relevant — 15 or 20 years ago — but that time has passed since we’ve made so much progress on relations with Maori and with Treaty settlements, he said.

The relationship between the country’s prime minister and Waitangi has been fraught ever since the first New Zealand born prime minister Norman Kirk made it our national day in 1974.

Of his fellow Labour premiers Helen Clark stayed away for four years after being refused the right to speak and reduced to tears, while David Lange never went, preferring to mark the day elsewhere.

By contrast Rob Muldoon attended every year, Jim Bolger went until the flag and the Governor-General were publicly insulted and John Key went until last year when he was not allowed to speak on the TPP agreement.

The problem is that a small group of activists insist on being as disruptive as possible. Their activities attract high media attention, particularly from television, and the great majority of New Zealanders including many Maori are offended by their actions.

Sadly, the time may be coming when the annual commemoration of the most important day in New Zealand’s history will be regularly marked away from the place where it actually took place and big Norm’s legacy will be lost.