Why, why, Waitangi …

by Jane Clifton / 07 February, 2013
Waitangi Day. National celebration or a national embarrassment?
Hekia novopay cartoon by Chris Slane
Cartoon by Chris Slane

There are worse things in politics than being grasped in Titewhai Harawira’s talons and taken into Waitangi’s combat zone. But just now it’s hard to think of any. It’s never been clear whether Titewhai regards the Prime Minister of the day as a trophy, or as prey for her to toy with. But it’s hard not to, at least backhandedly, admire her technique for hanging onto power.

By point-blank refusing to submit to reason, a sense of fair play or even the sense of mana of her tribal community, and by not even having to point out that she’ll be such an almighty nuisance if she’s brooked that it’s just not worth the risk, she has held onto her position as Kuia No 1 for our national day.

Just the sound of beads clacking is enough to send shivers up the spine of all senior politicians. For although Waitangi Day has become a national embarrassment, with Titewhai as its scarily beaming emblem, no politician has yet had the guts to suggest reforming it.

In part, our leaders’ willingness to keep presenting themselves up there for who knows what insults and discomfort, is a tacit acknowledgement of sympathy for the much-put-upon local iwi, who have always intended activities around February 6 to be a celebration of unity – but who have never been able to get control of what actually happens on the day. It has come to the ridiculous point where, if no one has organised any sort of projectile-throwing, flag-burning or bottom-bearing, we’re all reflexively disappointed.

The event exists in a desultory continuum between brawl and chore. It is seldom uplifting. Many politicians privately despair of being made by their leaders to show up on the day. Foreign diplomats feel duty-bound to attend, as they would any other country’s national day – but blowed if they know what to make of it.

As Paul Holmes argued – striking a controversial note that grows less so every year – Anzac Day has become the surrogate national day by becoming an event we can all rally around without rancour. Maori and Pakeha feel the same sense of pride and grief in our Anzac heritage. It’s a grievance we all share – that World War I might not even have been necessary and that our soldiers were frequently ill-used – at the same time as being a matter of honour that our forebears were so brave and self-sacrificing. The day prompts reflection on a host of useful issues to do with sovereignty and character. Would we be so altruistic today in a global emergency? Which wars are just and which aren’t?

Whereas unhappily Waitangi Day just reminds us that when it comes to race relations, socio-economic indicators and simple rules of etiquette, we’ve still got a long way to go.

And it appears we’re stuck with it. Prime Minister John Key pasted a cheery grin under barely concealed eye-rolling and submitted meekly to the talons. Labour leader David Shearer gamely suggested shifting the focus of the day by making it the occasion for announcing honours. Peter Dunne suggested political leaders should celebrate the day somewhere else, away from the bitterness and extremism.

But in the end, no one is prepared to do other than what we’ve always done: suffer our main politicians to roll up and take on the chin whatever aggressive stunts are in store. Maybe the day’s uneasy status is a useful psychological reminder of Maoridom’s continuing frustration.

And probably the risk of not having a Waitangi is greater than the fiasco of having one.


The Prime Minister who finally stood up and said, “Enough of this, I’m staying home for a barbie with the family this year”, would be a very popular figure. Unfortunately, he or she would attract the unwelcome support of bigots, and be guilty of dog-whistle politics of a most unattractive kind, as in, “I prefer my Maoris not to be quite so uppity!”

It’s a similar equation with the annual Ratana pilgrimage the party leaders make. On the one hand, it is bizarre that one religion’s festivities should attract such political patronage where others do not. On the other, the insult, hurt feelings and perceived racial slight that would be caused by MPs deciding to snub Ratana would be incalculable.

It’s not logical and it’s not fair. But then neither is Titewhai’s monopoly grip on the PM’s arm. Some things it’s just a whole lot safer not to fight.

Other things … well, provided you think you have an unequal opponent, you may as well battle away. The Government has made a number of brave and/or foolish decisions lately, which it seems to think it can defend despite billowing evidence to the contrary. Crimping the Official Information Act and further nobbling local democracy in Canterbury may be winnable battles to pick. But it’s not so clear the Government can survive its Novopay calls unbloodied.

Despite this payroll debacle, and two other shockers in education, it has let Hekia Parata stay on as minister. Her abrasive, haughtily uncommunicative and cursory management style having contributed to the cock-ups, we might have assumed her reprieve was a sign of that style being under reconstruction. Evidently not.

Last week the Government blatantly shielded her from having to answer questions in Parliament. Her one public utterance that week was, when told some ministry staff (who had helped cock up the Novopay implementation) had themselves not been paid, to quip that it was “Karma!” True, and quite witty – but not indicative of a minister who has learnt any lessons about how to stay out of trouble.

The Government has also set up an inquiry into Novopay – not, it insists, to find out who is to blame, but to find out what mistakes to avoid in future. A sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, if you will, which will leave us all very much the wiser, and remove the shards of bitterness from our hearts. Nice try, but since when did an inquiry ever do anything other than, at the least, confirm how bad we already thought things were and, at worst, find a whole lot more cock-ups into the bargain? And since when did such findings avoid being used to apportion blame? And why on earth should they not?


The warnings of unreadiness were there; the precautionary trial options were available; contractual obligations were capable of being insisted upon. But the politicians and officials who should have read things and known things did not. At the risk of depriving Sir Maarten Wevers of his fee as inquiry head, the headline lessons are already fairly obvious.

Such as, having asked for advice on how ready something is, you should then get around to finding out what the advice was. And having found it out, you should then make sure to pass it on to the relevant people – especially the ministers with their arses on the line. And if you are a minister with his or her posterior in that predicament, you should rigorously assess the risk management for yourself, rather than airily expecting some official to do it for you. As we already know, officials do not always pass on relevant information, and even if they do, politicians do not always notice. And somehow, no one is ever to blame. If Wevers can find out why that is, he’ll really be earning his fee.
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