Waitangi commemorations have marked the beginning of the political year for successive Parliaments – a place to shine a light on Māori inequities and put pressure on politicians to do more. This year there will be no spotlight in the Far North and one Cabinet Minister worries about what that means for Māori kaupapa.
Peeni Henare hails from Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine and has attended Waitangi on its special day for as long as he can remember.
He grew up in the Far North and still calls it home today.
In December the Waitangi National Trust Board, of which Henare is a member, made the difficult decision to cancel all in-person events at Waitangi this year and move everything online.
Northland’s vaccination rates are lower than the rest of the country at just 86 percent fully vaccinated, and its rate for Māori is even lower again at just 78 percent, compared to 83 percent nationwide.
As a result, Northland remains in the red light of the traffic system, while the rest of the country has moved to orange. That is up for review and an announcement on any changes will be made on Thursday afternoon.
“Without the focus at Waitangi, whether or not Māori issues will be able to come to the fore – I’m not so sure.’’ – Peeni Henare
But even if Northland slides into orange, the National Trust has already made the call that events will remain off at Waitangi this February.
Henare, who is Defence and Associate Health Minister, says that’s because it takes months to organise the schedule for Waitangi and the feeling of many leaders in the North is that they want to continue to protect their whānau from any Covid-19 spread.
But that doesn’t make the decision any easier.
“Personally, I’m sad, the celebrations have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
“Governments have come and gone but there’s always been something special about being at Waitangi on Waitangi Day. I’m sad we won’t get that opportunity this year,” Henare told Newsroom.
Te Tii, the more controversial lower marae that previously welcomed politicians at Waitangi, is pushing on with some events (both in-person and online).
Events moved away from Te Tii to the upper marae at the Treaty Grounds in 2018 after years of in-fighting and protests, which had resulted in some former Prime Ministers making the decision to stop attending.
But last year the Labour Māori caucus returned to Te Tii for the first time as a show of support and to fulfill a promise Labour’s Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis made to Ngapuhi stalwart Rudy Taylor before he passed away.
It was billed as the first steps in making a more formal return to Te Tii and paving the way for the Prime Minister to attend the following year.
Jacinda Ardern isn’t heading to Northland given the National Trust’s request that people stay clear of the region.
Instead, Henare and Kelvin Davis, who is MP for Tai Tokerau, will attend Te Tii during Waitangi on behalf of the Government.
But Henare says Ardern returning to Te Tii remains the goal, just not this year.
“That was always the plan and why we went last year – to start mending those bridges and opening the lines of communication.
“She will have to make that decision but that is certainly the intention from myself and Kelvin,” he said.
As for this year, Ardern and MPs from all other political parties will head to Waitangi Day events across the country and at home in their own electorates.
While Henare says this is a “grand opportunity” for iwi in other areas to commemorate their ancestors signing the Treaty of Waitangi, he is conscious it will have other impacts too.
“Without the focus at Waitangi, whether or not Māori issues will be able to come to the fore – I’m not so sure.”
Henare says Ngāpuhi will always be the protectors of the Treaty of Waitangi and the large commemorations seen there over the years will return. But in the meantime, new opportunities will need to be created to make sure Māori voices are heard.
“Governments have come and gone but there’s always been something special about being at Waitangi on Waitangi Day. I’m sad we won’t get that opportunity this year.” – Peeni Henare
Iwi concerns, particularly those of Ngāpuhi, have had blanket coverage at Waitangi over many decades, and it’s been a place where political leaders have been held to account for what they have or haven’t delivered for Māori.
Ngāti Hine leader and Waitangi National Trust chairman Pita Tipene has previously told Newsroom the access to ministers over the course of several days is “priceless”.
Having the Housing, Health, Finance and Māori Development Ministers on home turf for several days is a chance to chat and brainstorm over coffee or lunch, without having to travel to Wellington for a brief 30-minute chat in an office, he said.
Henare acknowledged how valuable those conversations are and says the onus will go on Labour Ministers and MPs to voice those concerns instead.
“My intention is to push and support many of their agenda over a number of issues. Housing is one of those issues, which is why Waitangi is hosting the Māori housing wananga in March.
“We’re going to have to continue to push that agenda in a place that needs a hell of a lot of attention still.”
Having spent much of the summer in the Far North, Henare says the priority issues are quite clear.
“Housing, health – particularly infrastructure, which is to do with the Whangārei Hospital – and tourism, came up a lot.
“The Bay of Islands in Northland has been hit hard by the impacts on tourism. They’ve gone from 80 cruise ships a summer to no cruise ships.”
Henare says all those issues have had a huge impact on a community that is already struggling, and whether politicians hear it at Waitangi or not, they need to be addressed.
The formal commemorations at the Treaty grounds being cancelled has brought about a mixed bag of reactions.
Henare says the feedback he got over Christmas was “a bit of relief that they won’t be inundated with visitors and any potential spread of Covid-19”.
Then there are his aunties who haven’t wandered out on Waitangi Day for years because of the “circus” it had become.
“They haven’t had a chance to enjoy it because of the annual presence of the Government … but this year they think they might make a trip out to the Bay of Islands.”
“The Bay of Islands in Northland has been hit hard by the impacts on tourism. They’ve gone from 80 cruise ships a summer to no cruise ships.” – Peeni Henare
The Iwi Chairs Forum held at Waitangi each year moved to an online format last year, despite Ardern and her entourage being in the North.
The forum, which meets with most political parties, will be online again this year, but at this stage no date has been set.
As for other political parties, National leader Chris Luxon will be in Auckland on Waitangi Day and will record a message for the virtual Waitangi Day broadcast being run by the Trust Board.
All the leaders from other parties will also take part in the virtual broadcast.
A spokesperson for Luxon said most National MPs will be in their own electorates on Waitangi Day and if any invitation to Te Tii is extended to the party it would be considered.
The Greens and Te Pāti Māori MPs will be attending Waitangi events in their own electorates this year, and ACT MPs have no official plans for the day.