Protesters gather at Waitangi

A few hundred people descended on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi this morning.
A few hundred people descended on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi this morning.

As commemorations get underway to mark the 176th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Prime Minister John Key's absence from official events in the Bay of Islands is still on the minds of many.

Damp and wet conditions haven't put people off an early start in Waitangi.

Several hundred protestors are gathered outside the Whare Rūnanga at Waitangi's treaty grounds.

Protesters gather at Waitangi

(Alex Baird / Newshub.)

The crowd have been marching, singing waiata and waving banners protesting the TPP, the flag change referendum as well as the seabed and foreshore.

Protesters gather at Waitangi

(Alex Baird / Newshub.)

The rest of Waitangi is in festival mode with performances, carnival rides and food stalls.

There is a heavy security presence.

Protesters gather at Waitangi

(Alex Baird / Newshub.)

 

A few hundred people - including politicians, iwi and church leaders and other dignitaries - descended on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi this morning for the traditional dawn service at Te Whare Runanga, the so-called upper marae.

Mr Key's no-show didn't go unnoted, with Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell offering a prayer that he return to Waitangi next year.

He urged the treaty partners to do better to address the challenges New Zealand still faces.

"It requires us to talk face-to-face to listen carefully in a way that recognises each others mana," he said.

"We ask you all that you give us the strength to recognise the desire by some to divide us, rather than to unite us as treaty partners. We are a better nation when the Treaty of Waitangi is honoured."

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce took Mr Key's responsibilities saying a prayer.

Other speakers included Labour leader Andrew Little who kept things short and sharp, ACT Party leader David Seymour and Green Party MP Marama Davidson.

After the service, Mr Joyce said he was sure the prime minister would be keen to return to Waitangi.

"But it's important that the invitation be respectful of the office of the prime minister of New Zealand," he told reporters.

Mr Little hoped Mr Flavell's prayer would be answered.

"It's our national day, this is our national place, this is where the treaty was forged," he said.

"I think the prime minister should be here as the head of government and the person we look to on days like this."

Protesters gather at Waitangi

Waitangi (Alex Baird / Newshub.)

After deciding not to go to Waitangi at all this year amid concern about his security and a "gagging order" preventing him from speaking freely on the lower marae, Mr Key has opted to spend February 6 in Auckland.

Today, Mr Key says he's had a fairly quiet day.

"I actually think my decision not to go [to Waitangi] is vindicated. The reality is I had a gagging order on me, and then yesterday, Labour and the Greens, who are two political parties opposed to TPP, were allowed to go on the lower marae and speak about their opposition to TPP," he says.

He also says one form of protest, which saw a sex toy being hurled at Economic Minister Steven Joyce, is "juvenile".

"I reckon it's appalling. It's appalling because that image has gone around the world, and now there are people in countries all over the world saying the way New Zealanders theoretically commemorate their national day is with a senior politician having a sex toy thrown at him."

However, this hasn't got him worried about going out in the public this weekend, and he's "certainly not ruling out going back" to Waitangi, but wants to return on previous conditions where he could talk more freely.

"I'm not boycotting the place; I simply said I need clarity on what I'm doing," he says.

He will attend a couple of events, including the NRL Auckland Nines.

Protesters gather at Waitangi

Waitangi (Alex Baird / Newshub.)

This year is the first time Mr Key has skipped Waitangi since making a promise in 2007, when he was opposition leader, to go every year.

While February 5 has often been an occasion for protests, stand-offs and mud-slinging at the lower marae, Waitangi Day itself, which is spent on the Treaty Grounds, is a less politically-charged affair.

But pouring rain and Mr Key's no-show have meant this year's commemorations have lacked the usual drama that's marred them in the past.

It hasn't been entirely without incident, with a protester throwing a sex toy at Mr Joyce on Friday.

Newshub/NZN

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