9 Feb 2024

Government faces the music at Waitangi

From Focus on Politics, 7:00 pm on 9 February 2024
Focus on Politics: Composite image of Chris Luxon, David Seymour, Winston Peters and others with Annette Sykes and Hone Harawira opposite. Tino rangatiratanga flag is in the background

Photo: RNZ

"They can feel a movement happening and they want to be part of it" - Shannon Haunui-Thompson

This year's record-breaking Waitangi celebrations drew 80,000 people to the Treaty grounds over four days, half that on Waitangi Day alone. 

With the dust settling on the event's biggest turnout in decades, the sense of unity and anger among many Māori will linger long after the Treaty Principles legislation is gone. 

The message of kotahitanga, unity, was sounded with the Kiingitanga's call for a national hui to take place at Turangawaewae, with discussions continuing into the annual Rātana celebrations and on to Waitangi.

RNZ's Tumu Māori Shannon Haunui-Thompson (Ngāpuhi) grew up coming to Waitangi every year and remembers the free train rides, swimming at the beach and the many hikoi across the bridge - people carrying flags and placards.

The hikoi on the Treaty Grounds.

A hikoi arrives at the Treaty Grounds in Waitangi for the 2024 celebrations. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

She says while that hasn't changed, she has never seen the like of what was on show at this year's Waitangi as a response to the coalition government, which is perceived as being anti-Māori. 

"When someone kind of threatens to change something that is fundamentally a founding document not just of our country but of our people, there was a true movement - I can feel and see it, physically see it, when our leaders are leading us - and you can see people want to be part of that," she says. 

"When leaders like Kiingi Tuuheitia, the Rātana tumuaki, iwi leaders, are all physically standing in line together like a strong, united front, why wouldn't you follow that?

"Accommodation's full. All the camping grounds are full. So people have literally come because they want to be here, be part of this movement, be part of this kotahitanga and support that movement - so they're sleeping in their cars on the side of the road." 

Heavy traffic around Waitangi during 2024 commemorations.

Waitangi Day traffic at this year's commemorations Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Many of the coalition's policies affect Māori, including repealing laws allowing iwi and hapū involvement in the uplifts of children. Haunui-Thompson says some of those changes - like removing Māori names from government departments - may seem minor, but can amount to an attack on the culture.

"Our language is really the essence of our culture - of any culture really, that has their own language - so it feels like an attack especially when there's a huge movement that's 40 years old that started with kohanga reo to revitalise our language."

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The ACT Party's proposed bill to rewrite the Treaty principles is the most visible example of this. It and its architect David Seymour faced criticism, heckling, and shouting at Waitangi, and he responded with his own verbal retorts. NZ First leader Winston Peters received similar treatment and also responded vociferously. 

Ngāpuhi leader Mere Mangu worked hard to keep the crowd calm after suggestions protesters' opposition could prevent Prime Minister Christopher Luxon from speaking, but she told Morning Report the following day she was disappointed with what he had to say. 

Mere Mangu of Ngāpuhi speaks to the crowd at Waitangi on 5 February.

Mere Mangu (Ngāpuhi) at Waitangi Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Taking a different approach to his coalition partners, his speech on the paepae stuck to prepared lines - including some he'd spoken word for word the previous year - and had limited focus on Te Tiriti. He told the programme the next day the repetition was a deliberate attempt to maintain consistency

But it wasn't until that Wednesday - after the celebrations and discussions in the north had dispersed - that Luxon hardened his language around his party's refusal to support the Treaty Principles Bill beyond the first reading.

"We will not be supporting that bill," he said. "There'll be an aeration of the issue through the select committee, but there's no intention to support it beyond that ... we won't be supporting it beyond that."

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon speaks to the crowd at Waitangi on 5 February.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon at Waitangi. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

His previous comments had typically included that caveat of having no "intention" or "commitment" to further support - leaving the door open to a future change. 

Luxon may be positioning to allow his coalition partners to defend the policy, but Māori rights activist Annette Sykes criticised his role in agreeing to introduce the legislation in coalition negotiations in the first place. She told RNZ the protest action seen so far was just the beginning. 

Annette Sykes.

Annette Te Imaima Sykes Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

"I think protest is inevitable, there's an outrage ... I love the law, okay, so when someone would say to me 'I'm going to change the Magna Carta because I've decided that I don't like it anymore', or 'I'm going to change the 10 commandments' ... you're the Judas of that."

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Te Pāti Māori is capitalising on this disquiet, and walked onto Te Whare Rūnganga with the Kiingitanga. Labour and the Greens - in a break from tradition - were also welcomed in a pōwhiri separate from that of the government, over the weekend. It's clear Labour is battling irrelevance as it criticises coalition policies while defending its own record.

Haunui-Thompson says the overarching takeaway from Waitangi is not the politics, but the people.

"Māori across the nation just want to be part of this movement, to ensure that, one, our language is safe; and like everyone is saying 'Toitū Te Tiriti', that the Treaty is upheld."

Hundreds of people standing on the beach, some wading into the water to greet the kaihoe in the Waka parade.

 Hundreds of people standing on the beach, some wading into the water to greet the kaihoe in the waka parade on Waitangi Day. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Until the many Māori who have mobilised against the coalition feel those taonga are safe, decision makers can expect protests to continue. 

In this week's Focus on Politics, Political Reporter Anneke Smith examines the coalition government's performance at a Waitangi Day for the history books. 

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