9 Jan 2017

PM: Te Tii actions disrespect Waitangi Day

12:59 pm on 9 January 2017

Prime Minister Bill English says the marae committee at Waitangi is disorganised and has failed to respect Waitangi Day, by not allowing him to speak.

Mr English will stay away from Waitangi for this year's commemorations after being denied pōwhiri speaking rights.

He will instead spend 6 February in Auckland.

He might also miss the annual Rātana celebrations at the end of this month.

In a statement, Mr English said he would not attend the annual powhiri at Te Tii Marae, which is traditionally held the day before Waitangi Day.

"After the issues surrounding the previous prime minister's attendance at Te Tii Marae last year, my office sought clarification from marae kaumatua that I would be welcomed and able speak about issues of importance to New Zealand, as is tradition," he said.

Former prime minister John Key did not attend Waitangi in 2016, after marae elder Kingi Taurua said he was not wanted amid strong opposition to the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Mr English said kaumatua advised his office he was welcome at the 2017 pōwhiri, but could not speak.

That condition was not acceptable, Mr English said.

"The general expectation would be that the prime minister is able to speak."

Two marae committee members have told RNZ that a final decision on whether Mr English would be allowed to speak was not due until Thursday.

Mr English denied he had jumped the gun. He would not change his plans even if the committee reversed its position.

"We received a letter and we're acting on that letter.

"[The committee] is a group that's always been a bit disorganised around Waitangi Day."

He was not disrepecting marae protocol, he said.

"It's not a matter of respect ... and in any case they need to conduct their own arrangements in a way that's respectful of the national day and they've failed a bit to do that."

The commemorations at Waitangi used to be an important opportunity for politicians to discuss national issues with iwi leaders, but that time had passed, Mr English said.

"Political discussions at Waitangi ... is now normally about Ngāpuhi and local issues."

Mr English said he would instead meet with iwi leaders comprising the Iwi Chairs' Forum in Waitangi on 3 February.

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett would lead a government delegation to the dawn service at Waitangi's upper marae on Waitangi Day.

Waitangi National Trust Board chairman Pita Paraone was disappointed Mr English would not attend.

Mr Paraone said he thought Mr English would make the trip because it was an election year.

It would have been a chance for the new prime minister to show his commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi, he said.

The dawn service at Waitangi

A dawn service at Waitangi Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Labour Party Māori development spokesperson and MP for Te Tai Tokerau Kelvin Davis said Mr English should stop running scared and back himself.

"If he went on onto the marae there, and jumped up to speak, nobody would shut him down. People would be probably very interested in what he's got to say, I doubt if there'll be anything controversial," he said.

"I think he should also participate in the political forum that's meant to be organised afterwards."

Mr Davis said last year political leaders were not afforded speaking rights, but spoke anyway.

PM may also miss Rātana

Mr English also cast doubt on whether he and other government ministers would attend the annual Rātana celebrations at the end of this month - traditionally, the first major political event of the year.

The day that had been set aside for politicians to visit Rātana Pa, near Whanganui, clashed with the first day Cabinet was due to meet, he said.

"We're trying to work with Rātana to fit in with them."

He did not think it would be seen as a snub if he did not attend, he said.

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