Waitangi flashpoint arrives for NZ’s Luxon government

Ben McKay |

Members of New Zealand’s Ngapuhi tribe have welcomed the Maori King to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Members of New Zealand’s Ngapuhi tribe have welcomed the Maori King to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

Some of New Zealand’s most memorable moments of political protest have taken place at the site of its foundation – the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the country’s far north.

In 1990, a local threw a wet T-shirt at Queen Elizabeth II’s passing car, narrowly missing the monarch as she visited 150 years on from the treaty’s signing.

Former prime minister Helen Clark cried when she was denied speaking rights by members of the local Ngapuhi tribe in 1998.

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, in New Zealand’s far north, are the site of the country’s foundation. (Ben McKay/AAP PHOTOS)

A decade later another former leader, John Key, nursing a broken arm, was assaulted by two men protesting land confiscations.

Mud was thrown on then-opposition leader Don Brash on his 2004 visit, and in 2016, Mr Key’s finance minister Steven Joyce was infamously hit on the head by a flying dildo as the protester who threw it yelled “thanks for raping our sovereignty”.

It is this gauntlet the current government will run when members visit the site on Monday.

On the eve of NZ’s national day – Waitangi Day on February 6 – local Maori leaders will host Chris Luxon’s government for a gathering in the shade of the treaty grounds’ meeting house.

Ngapuhi speakers will offer a scorecard of sorts on the government’s record at the annual talks, which centre on how Maori are faring.

Given Mr Luxon’s right-wing coalition is seen as the most anti-Maori government in decades, protest is expected – and fury is feared.

“We’re expecting people to show their anger and frustration,” Waitangi National Trust chair Pita Tipene said.

“I’m really encouraging everybody to keep things safe so that people can articulate themselves – and as I say, shining more light on where we need to go, instead of heat – but no doubt there’s going to be plenty of heat.”

The Maori King Kiingitanga Tuheitia (centre)
Kiingitanga Tuheitia (centre) has rallied Maori to question the NZ’s government’s program. (Ben McKay/AAP PHOTOS)

The three-party coalition has enraged Maori with a policy program including disestablishing Maori-specific public services and prioritising English over Maori language.

Generating the most anguish, minority parties ACT and NZ First both propose to axe rights conferred to Maori in the Treaty of Waitangi.

ACT leader David Seymour believes affording rights to Maori under a pact signed 184 years ago is “incompatible with the fundamental democratic value that all citizens are equal under the law”.

Maori leaders disagree, insisting NZ was founded on a partnership between treaty signatories: Maori chiefs and the British Crown.

In formal gatherings at the treaty grounds in recent days, the three-party government has been called a “three-headed taniwha”, a serpent-like creature of Maori spirituality.

“The bugle has sounded and we have heard the call,” senior Labour member Peeni Henare said.

“This is a fight that will not be fought just in parliament.

“I lift my gun, and I let the shots do the talking … a figurative gun, not an actual gun.”

Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said the government’s policies had only served to build “kotahitanga”, or Maori solidarity.

The Maori Party has eschewed the recent practice of going onto the treaty grounds with other parties, instead aligning with the Maori King movement led by Kiingitanga Tuheitia.

Maori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa Packer and Rawiri Waititi
The Maori Party’s Debbie Ngarewa Packer and Rawiri Waititi are aligned with the Maori King movement. (Ben McKay/AAP PHOTOS)

Already this summer, Kiingitanga Tuheitia has drawn 10,000 people to a “national unity hui” aimed at rallying against the government’s program.

Leaders of Maori tribes, known as iwi, have also issued an 11-point plan to fight back against the government.

Jamie Tuuta, of the Ngati Mutunga iwi, said Maori wanted the government to ascribe to the principle of partnership.

“One of the key messages (we have for the government) is to be careful,” he told Radio NZ.

“We’re inviting the government to work with us, to be a treaty partner.”

Tens of thousands are expected to gather at Waitangi on Monday for the government talks and Tuesday’s national day.

In recent years, Jacinda Ardern’s government hosted a free barbecue breakfast for people attending the Waitangi Day dawn service at the stunning seaside site.

That barbecue was scrapped in 2023 due to safety concerns – an unfortunate sign of NZ’s less civil public debate.