9 Jan 2017

PM turned down Waitangi speaking compromise

4:15 pm on 9 January 2017

Letters between the Prime Minister's office and the chairman of the Waitangi marae show Bill English flatly rejected an offer to speak at Te Tii Marae, after the pōwhiri.

Bill English announced as the new Prime Minister of New Zealand, Paula Bennett as Deputy Prime Minister. Prime Minster Bill English speaks to media after the annoucement.

Prime Minister Bill English - pictured here shortly after he was formally appointed to the role - will be making other plans for Waitangi Day this year. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Following his announcement that he would not be attending Waitangi Day commemorations in the Far North, Mr English's office has released copies of its correspondence with the marae chairman, Ngati Kawa Taituha.

View a copy of the letters (PDF, 342KB)

Just before Christmas, Mr English's chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, wrote to Mr Taituha to seek clarification of whether the prime minister would be invited to attend and speak at the pōwhiri on Te Tii Marae, which is held the day before Waitangi Day.

"As you will appreciate, it is in everyone's best interests to resolve the matter promptly and thereby avoid the uncertainties that arose in the lead-up to Waitangi 2016," Mr Eagleson wrote.

The prime minister's office requested a specific invitation from the marae that clearly stated Mr English had speaking rights at the marae for the pōwhiri.

"He very much wants to attend the celebrations on the basis that he can speak at the pōwhiri as has traditionally been the case."

In his reply, dated 4 January, Mr Taituha agreed it was in everyone's best interests to avoid a repeat of the 2016 Waitangi row.

Bill English and John Key at Waitangi.

Mr English and John Key at Waitangi in 2015 Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Mr Taihuta said there had been discussions throughout 2016 about how to restore integrity to the events to commemorate the Treaty of Waitangi.

"In general, our people support the Prime Minister's return to Waitangi in 2017. My hope is that your office may gain confidence that Waitangi Marae has always held a strong intention to host all manuhiri in a highly dignified manner."

Mr Taihuta said small, but significant, changes would be made to the pōwhiri schedule.

That would mean a Māori representative would speak on Mr English's behalf during the pōwhiri.

At the end of the pōwhiri, there would be a forum for the prime minister to speak freely about politics, if he so wished.

That two-step process aligned with the normal practice followed by the marae throughout the year.

But, responding to that, Mr English's office said the decision to invite the prime minister, but not allow him to speak at the pōwhiri, was "of concern".

"On the basis that the Prime Minister has not been invited to speak at the pōwhiri as has been the long standing tradition prior to 2016, I can advise that the Prime Minister will not be attending," Mr Eagleson said.

Last year, then-Prime Minister John Key decided the day before the 5 February pōwhiri not to go to Waitangi.

That was amid a row about whether or not he would be able to speak if he did go onto Te Tii Marae.


21 December, 2016: Bill English's office writes to Waitangi marae chairman Ngati Kawa Taituha seeking clarification about the prime minister's invitation to attend and speak at the pōwhiri at Te Tii Marae.

4 January, 2017: Mr Taituha replies, saying Mr English would be invited to the pōwhiri, but his Māori representative would be the only person able to speak. He would be able to speak at a forum after the pōwhiri.

8 January, 2017: Mr English's office turns down the invitation to attend the pōwhiri, on the basis he would not be given full speaking rights.

9 January, 2017: Mr English publicly announces his decision not to attend Waitangi commemorations in the Far North. He says he will spend Waitangi Day in Auckland instead.

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