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Ignore the ‘haters’ – this Waitangi Day, the right to protest is more relevant than ever

Radio host and political commentator Duncan Garner calls protestors at the Waitangi Marae “self-appointed meatheads” who “hijack the holiday for feeble grandstanding and cheap shots”. It’s just the latest attempt by Pākehā to ridicule and invalidate the Māori tradition of protest, says Madeleine de Young.

Prime Minister Bill English’s decision not to attend the Waitangi Day commemorations at the treaty grounds has enflamed the hotheads of Aotearoa, giving the “haters and wreckers” an invitation to divide us on our national day. It should really have been expected: if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that pitting a population against itself is politically lucrative. For three weeks and counting, the national news has featured headlines denouncing the role of Māori on Waitangi Day. From the prime minister down, it has been made clear that the opinion, language and customs of Māori are not wanted on the day that commemorates our colonisation.

Indeed, in the words of Duncan Garner this Saturday past, “He’s made the right call: someone had to deal to these self-appointed meatheads who harbour delusional thoughts of a better country under their misguided views of the world and the place of the Treaty of Waitangi.”

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While I shy away from calling myself a meathead, I ask – is it really delusional to want our country to be better? To work to deserve our reputation for having a better relationship with our Indigenous people than our sibling colonised nations? To dream of an Aotearoa where Te Tiriti o Waitangi is respected as a partnership between Tangata Whenua and all the people who have grown to call our nation home?

Instead of riding on the annual media maul, with its lashings of vitriol, condemnation and outright hate, why can’t we, as Garner suggests, behave in a mature manner (without the name calling) – by making space for hard conversations on the impact of the colonisation of our nation on the day that commemorates that exact act.

If New Zealand bothered to look, it would see a history with much more to cringe at than the behaviour of a few at Waitangi. War, land confiscation, corporal child abuse and language alienation are defining features of this nation’s past. The memories, the weight of this remain as clear today as the stories gifted from a grandparent to their mokopuna. It is not a long-forgotten past, it is fresh.

Today we continue to see the impact of colonisation on our health, crime and social statistics. The impact of colonisation on health is literally an NZQA standard in high school. Meanwhile, the government is slow to counteract it.

The right to protest is widely perceived as a human right – an inalienable right of living in a democratic society. Protest is how the people make their voices heard. Protest is an opportunity to learn from each other and to change.

In Aotearoa, protest is how Māori have fought to regain their language, lands and right to exist as tangata whenua in this country. Whether it is 1972 and Ngā Tamatoa are delivering the te reo petition to parliament, or 2016 and the Choose Clean Water Hikoi is demanding that government acknowledge and address the state of our waterways, protest remains relevant.

As long as power imbalances exist between those govern and those who vote protest is a valuable and important tool – as we have seen so clearly these past two weekends.

To return to the issue of Bill English’s attendance at Waitangi, it may be true that he has worked privately to engage genuinely with Māori. At “the coalface of change and policy” (Garner’s words) he may care deeply about policy and how it affects families. These things are commendable and important, but now, as prime minister, English’s personal exchanges matter less. What matters are the messages he sends to the nation as a key representative of government.

Protestors approach Waitangi Marae on February 5, 2016. (Photo by Cam McLaren/Getty Images)

Protestors approach Waitangi Marae on February 5, 2016. (Photo by Cam McLaren/Getty Images)

Bill English turned down his invitation to attend Waitangi on the basis of speaking rights: Waitangi Marae wished for the pōwhiri to be conducted in te reo Māori, as is appropriate for the day. Bill English is not a fluent speaker of te reo Māori. How ridiculous that in 26 years in parliament, learning an official language of New Zealand is not a skill he has worked to hone. Never mind that his first attempt at becoming prime minister was back in 2002.

In lieu of the prime minister’s ability to speak for himself in the language appropriate to the venue, Waitangi Marae had asked him to speak via a representative who could. This is not rude – this is tikanga Māori, with which after 26 years as a politician he should be familiar. The prime minister himself would have a platform to speak once the pōwhiri had concluded and the according state of tapu, or sacredness, had been lifted.

In retaliation to his potential hosts, the Prime Minister announced that a request to abide by tikanga was disrespectful and that he wouldn’t be attending at all. Even when Waitangi Marae offered to compromise their customs and let him speak himself, the answer remained no.

It’s a shame. In refusing to engage with tikanga Māori, and with the people at Waitangi, Bill English, Duncan Garner and others like them demonstrate a refusal to engage with Māori culture at a basic level. In so doing they fail to benefit from the equalising nature of a hui, beginning with a wero – challenge – and ending with kai, laughter and music.

Because in one respect Garner is right: Waitangi Day is for many a day where we “celebrate our children, families and country”. But as a mature nation it doesn’t need to be the protests or the party. It can and should have room for both.


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