From tears to threats: How New Zealand's recent leaders have handled Waitangi Day

Political presence at Waitangi Day has long been controversial, and often our political leaders have taken the most heat, with everything from mud to dildos thrown, tears shed, and threats exhibited. So, what's in store for Jacinda Ardern this year?

It became tradition for political and iwi leaders to stop at Ngāpuhi's Te Tii marae in the Bay of Islands - seen as the gateway to the Treaty of Waitangi Grounds - to pay respect to the tangata whenua or people of the land.

But in 2018, following ongoing politically-motivated protests at Te Tii marae, all of the political talks were moved to the more neutral Te Whare Rūnanga or 'upper marae' at the Treaty Grounds.

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attends Waitangi Day celebrations at the upper marae for her third time, there are  Māori issues that cannot be ignored, including Ihumātao, Whānau Ora and Oranga Tamariki uplift of Māori children.

The Prime Minister asked to be held to account when she first visited in 2018.

"Hold us to account," she said at the time, standing on the paepae at the upper marae.  "Because, one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here... Only you can tell me when I have done that."

She told Newshub ahead of Waitangi Day 2020: "I will keep going back to Waitangi and be present at Waitangi. You can't be held to account unless you're there.

"That's important to me, to continue to be there and have those discussions, and actually on all of those areas we know that there's work to be done - some of them incredibly complex - but on each, we are making good progress."

Here's a look at how our recent Prime Ministers have handled Waitangi Day.

Jacinda Ardern - Prime Minister from 2017 to present

Jacinda Ardern speaks on the veranda of Te Whare Runanga on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds on February 5, 2018
Jacinda Ardern speaks on the veranda of Te Whare Runanga on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds on February 5, 2018 Photo credit: Getty

Jacinda Ardern was the first female Prime Minister to be given the right to speak in 2018 at Waitangi's upper marae after prolonged discussions.

In her speech, she said: "I do not take lightly the privilege extended to me to speak ... today, not only as a Prime Minister but as a wāhine."

Ardern attended Waitangi Day again in 2019 and was criticised by a Ngāpuhi leader after she stumbled when reciting the Treaty of Waitangi articles.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges attended commemorations at Waitangi in 2019 - the first National Party leader to do so since 2015.

Ahead of Waitangi Day in 2020, a group of women Māori leaders launched legal action against the Government for what they see as a "failure" to deliver on the Whānau Ora initiative. 

And a new Whānau Ora report has revealed damning details of Oranga Tamariki's conduct, sparked by the highly-publicised uplifting of a newborn baby from her mother in Hastings in 2019. 

Nevertheless, Ardern was warmly welcomed at Northland's Waipuna Marae on Monday where she unveiled a commemorative statue of the late Māori land activist Dame Whina Cooper.

It comes as she is yet to announce a deal to conclude deadlock over Ihumātao, an area of land near Auckland International Airport, where Māori activists have been protesting against Fletcher Building's plans to build 500 homes.

Sir Bill English - Prime Minister from 2016 to 2017

Sir Bill English did not attend the annual pōwhiri at Te Tii marae in 2017 as Prime Minister after learning that his speaking rights would be restricted. 

Sir Bill - who took over as leader after Sir John Key's resignation - also chose not to attend because he said he felt that New Zealanders "cringe a bit" at the protesters.

Sir John Key - Prime Minister from 2008 to 2016

Sir John Key is guided by Titewhai Harawera, a Ngapuhi elder, as he is welcomed onto Te Tii marae on February 5, 2010.
Sir John Key is guided by Titewhai Harawera, a Ngapuhi elder, as he is welcomed onto Te Tii marae on February 5, 2010. Photo credit: Getty

Before Sir John Key became Prime Minister, he went to Waitangi in 2007 while former Prime Minister Helen Clark stayed away. He said if he became leader, he would go every year - but he didn't.

In 2009, Sir John's first year as Prime Minister at Waitangi was marked by two men grabbing him and having to be dragged away by security.

The year was expected to be a celebratory event, due to the Government including the Māori Party, and Sir John agreeing to have the Māori flag flown alongside the New Zealand flag in key places across the country on Waitangi Day.

There was commentary at the time, however, that the tino rangatiratanga flag had negative connotations for the iwi.

The two men who grabbed Sir John were charged, and reports from that year say they didn't belong to any particular group of protesters.

Even Māori activist Titewhai Harawira - known for welcoming Prime Ministers to the Waitangi Grounds - was quoted saying there was no need for such violence, and her condemnation was matched by other Māori leaders.

But as protests on the Waitangi Grounds continued throughout the years, the chair of the marae at the time threatened to end the traditional welcome for politicians, unless protesters could behave.

Sir John said he hoped it wouldn't happen.

As 2015 rolled around, Sir John said he expected his visit that year to be "rough", with issues swirling around the flag debate, the handling of the Ngāpuhi settlement, and opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

The following year, Sir John did not attend Waitangi for the first time after facing the threat of a "gagging order". It was that year when his Economic Development Minister, Steven Joyce, was pelted with a dildo by a protester.

Sir John defended not going to Waitangi that year, despite promising to do so every year. He said he would only go under "conditions of equity and fairness".

Helen Clark - Prime Minister from 1999 to 2008


Helen Clark is welcomed onto the Karetu Marae one day before Waitangi Day on February 5, 2008 in Waitangi.
Helen Clark is welcomed onto the Karetu Marae one day before Waitangi Day on February 5, 2008 in Waitangi. Photo credit: Getty

Despite the challenges of previous years, in 1999 Labour leader Helen Clark attended Waitangi commemorations in her first year as New Zealand Prime Minister.

Clark did not return the following year, instead opting to attend a Waitangi Day function at Ōnuku marae in Akaroa, while Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boys and Dame Jenny Shipley, Opposition leader at the time, were at Waitangi.

Former Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley blasted Clark, describing the Prime Minister's decision not to attend official events in Waitangi as a "cop-out".

In 2001, Cabinet decided there would be no official representation at Waitangi. But that year, Clark announced $290,000 of Government funding for Waitangi Day community events around the country.

Clark returned to Waitangi in 2002 with then-Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright. The Prime Minister was escorted onto the grounds by Titewhai Harawira.

Protesters disrupted the welcome at Te Tii marae and an early church service in the Whare Rūnanga on the Treaty Grounds, but other events were held in a "celebratory atmosphere", reports at the time said.

But those "disturbances" prompted Clark not to attend the traditional dawn service at Waitangi in 2003.

"I wasn't particularly impressed with what went on either indoors or outdoors," Clark said at the time, describing the Waitangi Day commemorations of 2002 as a "shambles".

Instead, Clark held two private events, including a Waitangi Day breakfast held at Waitangi's Copthorne Hotel and a reception hosted by the Governor-General.

Things got more heated for Clark following controversy surrounding the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 which gave ownership of that land to the Crown and disallowed Māori to seek customary title through the courts.

Clark was met with a barrage of protesters that year when she arrived at Waitangi, escorted by Titewhai Harawira. She was heckled and anti-Government chants echoed throughout, reports described.

That same year, then-Opposition leader Don Brash was pelted with mud as he walked away from Te Tii marae.

He had been preparing to walk on to the marae and ask about the media ban which prevented mainstream media from attending, which he described as a "racially imposed ban on the media".

Months later, a huge hikoi travelled from Northland to Parliament challenging the Foreshore and Seabed Act, sparking the emergence of the Māori Party.

The following National-led Government under Sir John Key later repealed the law as part of the deal with the Māori Party, allowing iwi to seek customary rights in court.

The law was also changed so that no one owned the foreshore and seabed - something Clark later admitted no one had told her was a solution when she was in power.

"If someone had given us the brilliant advice that [the foreshore and seabed] could be classified as not belonging to anybody that might have been quite helpful, but I don't recall ever having such advice."

Clark did not return to Te Tii marae following a jostling incident in 2004 but did continue to visit Waitangi, which revolved around hosting her breakfast and walking around the Treaty grounds.

Dame Jenny Shipley - Prime Minister from 1997 to 1999


Jenny Shipley and Titewhai Harawira are welcomed onto the grounds of the Te Tii Waitangi marae.
Jenny Shipley and Titewhai Harawira are welcomed onto the grounds of the Te Tii Waitangi marae. Photo credit: Getty

From 1996 to 1998, the official Waitangi Day ceremonies were held at Government House in Wellington, while a function at Waitangi had a limited Government presence.

Dame Jenny Shipley attended the dawn flag raising ceremony on the Treaty Grounds Waitangi in 1998 as National leader and Prime Minister before returning to Wellington for official commemorations.

An official statement at the time said her Coalition Government - of which Winston Peters was Deputy Prime Minister - was "committed to settling Treaty claims in order to address and remove the sense of grievance caused by historical injustices".

On Waitangi Day that same year Opposition Labour Party leader Helen Clark was challenged by Titewhai Harawira about her rights to speak on Te Tii marae as a woman.

Clark became visibly upset and later vowed not to return to Waitangi Day celebrations unless she was treated with dignity and respect. In 2002, it was reported that Clark and Harawira had made peace with each other.

It wasn't until 2014 when women were allowed for the first time to speak at Te Tii marae, with the then-Green Party co-leader Meteria Turei the first woman politician - 16 years after Clark's right to speak was challenged.