5 Feb 2020

Simon Bridges defends Waitangi speech after heavy criticism

10:19 am on 5 February 2020

The government's record on delivering for Māori has been called into question by Simon Bridges at Waitangi, prompting both sides of the marae ātea to rebuke him.

Simon Bridges at Waitangi 4 February

National Party leader Simon Bridges during his speech at Waitangi on 4 February. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Since her first speech as Prime Minister at Waitangi in 2018, Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly told those assembled at the Treaty grounds to "hold her to account".

But the National Party leader's attempt to do just that was not well received.

Challenges to Bridges' speech came from both paepae.

Shane Jones, who was set to speak on behalf of New Zealand First, kept his remarks brief and then stepped aside for his party leader, Winston Peters.

Peters was heavily critical, saying "if we can come to this famous place after 180 years and trample all over the recognition of its significance and what it means in the past and in the future for politics then we are in trouble.

"What am I doing? I'm making sure you don't get away with it."

While the final speaker for the hau kāinga, Waihoroi Shortland, said his harshest critique was reserved for Bridges and his party's decision not to stand candidates in the Māori seats.

"You are wrong. Your party is wrong. I don't want to enter into the politicisation of the last few days or next eight months. All I am saying is think upon these things. And I give them with an open and truthful heart. Which is what all these speakers have tried to do today. So, with all of those words, there are many other things we have to talk about. Have the courage to have those conversations."

Today, Bridges defended himself.

"Look it's par for the course, I think what happened is actually relatively straightforward. I was seeking to set out what I think matters for Māori, for Northland, for New Zealand in terms of a stronger economy, infrastructure, I was quite clear about that, making New Zealanders safer," he told Morning Report.

He claimed it was the government being cynical at Waitangi and that it had backfired.

He rejected the suggestion that he had misread the room and it had instead backfired on himself.

"What's important to me is speaking about what matters - yes on the paepae - but also direct to New Zealanders.

"I think though, New Zealanders see it for what it is and reality is it is a great way for me, for National, for people on the paepae to talk about what matters."

Bridges said neither he nor National had given up on Māori.

Speaking for himself, he said: "I've said many times before I'm proud of my whakapapa, I'm proud of my English, my British heritage. Ultimately... I'm a New Zealander first and foremost ... if I think about Waitangi Day, what I see is a day that yes, that is historic in its significance but is ultimately, at its most basic, about good relations between New Zealanders."

He said he did not regret what he said on the paepae.

"I think it was a good opportunity for me, for National, (to) set out what matters."

He pointed out that he was the first National Party leader to go to Waitangi in a "number of years".

Former leaders John Key and Bill English refused to go because they "weren't going to be gagged from speaking on the paepae".

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