Yesterday, Ngāpuhi leaders decided to block the Prime Minister from Waitangi’s all-important lower marae for signing the Trans Pacific Partnership, but cheers soon turned to jeers as marae trustees announced to the 50-strong hui that, like it or not, John Key was still welcome and that was that.
If only it were that simple... But hey, it’s Waitangi.
I was the only journalist at the hui yesterday when all of this went down. It all started as a hushed word with Ngāpuhi kaumatua Kingi Taurua, the man behind the hui.
“Tēnā koe matua,” I said, and we shared a hongi.
“Ahhh kia ora Alex… welcome, welcome,” he replied. Then he grinned cheekily. “You’re from Ngāpuhi today ok? If anyone asks, you’re from Ngāpuhi!”
A bit of a strange way to start the day, but I went with it.
A short time later there was the pōwhiri. Filing into the wharenui behind the other manuhiri (guests), I sat near the back. No cameras were allowed. The only other journalist in the whare soon disappeared.
I was the only reporter left. I started to doubt myself. Perhaps I had the wrong time? The wrong meeting? Was Kingi Taurua pulling my gullible leg?
And then the kōrero started.
“I don’t understand why we want to welcome a Prime Minister when he has already signed away our sovereignty.”
“It is not a wise move to give the finger to the PM.”
“But they are breaking the law!”
“Don’t close the door!”
“You are welcoming murderers on to the marae.”
“They are just rubbing the salt in.”
“Let him on… we’re not just discussing the TPP, remember our treaty settlement?! I still want to be alive for that.”
I was in the right place. The people were rousing and passionate; they were angry and frustrated; but most of all, they were divided.
Two-thirds of those in the whare were giving the one-finger salute to John Key. The other third weren’t exactly putting that finger away, but they were convinced the iwi was better confronting the Prime Minister head on. If he was blocked from coming onto the marae, he was winning.
Then it was kapu ti time (morning tea). I waited for everyone to file out, resisting the hustle of one of the ringawera (the workers in the kitchen). It was then that a burly man came up to me, his eyes squinting a little.
“Who told you YOU could be here?” he asked.
“I… I was invited by Kingi Taurua,” I stammered. Then I remembered I was supposed to be Ngāpuhi today!
“You know media weren’t supposed to be here today…. don’t you?” he continued. “Be careful you don’t get swallowed up, because you will!”
I gulped. It suddenly all made sense -- I wasn’t actually allowed to be here. Kingi Taurua had smuggled me in! Sorry Kingi, I tried to keep up the act but I put my foot in it.
After the tea break, the kōrero continued for another hour. I sat under a tree getting slowly burnt, sweat patches joining up.
Suddenly there was a cheer, and then the jeer.
38 votes to ban the PM. 14 votes to let him on.
But that wasn’t simply that -- then the Marae trustees overruled the vote.
The crowd spilled out of the whare. I started speaking to Te Kotahitanga o Ngā Hapū o Ngāpuhi co-Chairman Rudy Taylor. He supported the marae trustees; in his mind it made no sense that the Prime Minister shouldn’t be let on. That’s when the heckling started. A woman waving a United Tribes flag began yelling.
“You can f**k right off, you’re welcoming murderers, f**k off!”
This was going to be a bitter pill to swallow. The trustees had defied the majority.
I spoke to Trustee Emma Gibbs, a flower placed delicately in her hair. She is the great-great granddaughter of one of the Treaty of Waitangi signatories and, she made a point of noting, the only person at the hui to be born at Te Tii Marae.
She maintained the decision was up to the trustees and not a ragtag group of “barking mad” iwi leaders. The Prime Minister was still welcome to come onto the marae, but he wouldn’t have speaking rights.
What did Kingi Taurua think of that?
“They [the trustees] should get back to the kitchen.”
Tensions were high under the glaring Northland sun. What a day!
The Prime Minister later signalled at his post-cabinet conference in Wellington that he wouldn’t be going to Waitangi at all if he couldn’t speak.
Perhaps it was the trustees’ way of appeasing frustrated members of the hui. Perhaps they simply didn’t want to be the ones to say no to the Prime Minister -- a way of forcing him to make a decision. Or perhaps they simply thought they were doing the right thing.
Regardless, the decision is now back on the trustees at Te Tii Marae, and the question is: will they back down? They’ve already fought for the Prime Minister to be let on, so why won’t they let him speak?
No speaking means no prime minister at the Marae.
Maybe this is a Waitangi where no one will get their way. But hey, isn’t that what it’s always about?