Thousands gathered at Waitangi this morning to voice their concerns directly to the new government. And the prime minister made it clear he wasn’t listening, writes Madeleine Chapman.
His speech was boring. Sure, Waitangi is a hard place to deliver an impressive speech as a politician when you’re up against seasoned orators that are the iwi leaders and bishops. But Luxon’s speech was so boring as to be insulting. He gave the final speech of the day, two hours after the first speaker stood up. The weather was stiflingly hot and kai was a long way away for the majority of people there.
Before he spoke, the crowd were warned that they may not get a prime minister’s speech at all after a group of peaceful protesters had a sung a loud waiata while David Seymour was speaking. Before that, the crowd at large had chanted for Winston Peters to “e noho” once it became clear his speech was mostly telling off everyone in the audience who was younger than him. Before Luxon’s speech, everyone gave a verbal promise not to disrupt or heckle him, “no matter what is said”.
And what was said, on this unique platform at the end of a day filled with high emotions? Essentially nothing. The organisers needn’t have worried about heckling because it’s hard to heckle when someone says nothing of interest. Luxon’s speech may as well have been delivered on the election campaign trail, for all the talk of “outcomes” and “promises” and “all Kiwis”. There was the cursory Māori word dropped in – whare instead of home, whānau for family – but he still managed to sneak in a “mojo” when the far superior and more appropriate “mana” was right there. But as far as the content, Luxon appeared to not notice he was speaking to a massive Māori audience and instead delivered all the speaking points he’d give to a corporate conference, with the occasional mention of iwi or Māori.
“I’ve spoken a lot about education since becoming Leader of the National Party and I will continue to do so, because it is the thing that worries me the most,” he said, to groans from the crowd, half of whom couldn’t hear him because he didn’t project. “How can a first-world country have 55% of our kids not attending school regularly and our children not knowing the basics well?”
Luxon cited truancy rates despite repeated calls from previous speakers at te whare Rūranga, and even at Rātana, to “not just talk about truancy” in his speeches. In fact, te Kiingitanga representative Rahui Papa spoke directly to Luxon about an hour earlier to ask him to not focus on attendance but to focus instead on “systemic change that makes education sexy in Aotearoa”. He must not have been listening.
What Luxon’s hosts and attendants really wanted to hear from his speech was his own party’s view on te Tiriti and Treaty principles. Having just heard from, and sung over, David Seymour, the crowd and those watching were waiting to hear whether Luxon would distance himself from Act’s stance or seek to defend it. Instead he said nothing. Instead he spoke about the Treaty only briefly (and benignly) and those remarks were repeated verbatim from his Waitangi speech as leader of the opposition in 2023. In the 12 months since the first time he spoke those words, Luxon has become prime minister and formed a coalition where te Tiriti and Treaty principles are a core issue, if not the core issue (not to mention other NZ First and Act policies around te reo Māori and history in schools). So to simply repeat his preamble about the signing of the Treaty this year, as if the context was anything close to the same, is lazy at best.
A few speeches earlier, Ngā Tamatoa activist Annette Sykes had singled Luxon out specifically in her remarks. Until then, National had largely been ignored by speakers, with most choosing to focus on Seymour and NZ First as the instigators of tense debates. But Sykes looked at Luxon and said: “You’re not off the hook, prime minister. I actually have real respect for Winston. I think he only went in for power. Men do that a lot. But why would someone who wants to be the leader of a nation permit the tail to wag the dog?” It was a direct challenge to Luxon – show us what the dog thinks and how the dog moves. Now is your chance. He must not have been listening.
Instead of responding, he delivered a speech that well and truly killed the energy of the day (actually, maybe that was his intention all along?) The talking points focused on business and economy had all been heard throughout the campaign, and the delivery was akin to a high school student asking for their peers to vote for them for head prefect. There was quite literally not a single line in it that is worth remembering.
And perhaps that was the goal. By the halfway point, half the crowd was talking amongst themselves and by the time it ended, there was palpable relief in the air. Which in Luxon’s mind is probably better than what his colleagues got. The animosity towards Seymour moments earlier was palpable, and will continue for as long as he pushes his bill forward. But when Seymour spoke, he responded to the direct claims made against him – though they hardly eased tensions – as well as getting out his prepared speaking points. Winston Peters just yelled at everyone but even he managed to reference lines from other speakers to show he was paying attention.
This is what people expected from them, and every speaker, on the day – to hear the concerns of Māori and respond, no matter how infuriating those responses might be. Very few present would have expected any change in approach from the politicians who spoke, and even fewer expected any sort of inspirational monologue from Luxon, but it was important to make sure that concerns were voiced and heard.
Politicians love to say that they’re there to listen. Sometimes it seems like all they want to do is listen, at the expense of actually doing something. It’s frustrating to experience and something Māori have dealt with since 1840. Jacinda Ardern became known for her impressive speeches at Waitangi as prime minister, and she had a real knack for nodding intently and repeating concerns back to those who’d voiced them. Whether or not New Zealanders, and Māori in particular, feel she delivered on her speeches, is another debate entirely.
But when Luxon stood up after two hours of shared grievances and gave a cookie cutter speech of repeated segments, campaign slogans and no acknowledgement of anything that had been said throughout the weekend, he revealed something even more disappointing: that he hadn’t been listening at all.