Waitangi Day 2020 least political in years, Māori feel listened to - commentator

A political commentator suggests Waitangi Day 2020 was the least political in years with the Government looking to foster togetherness and harmony.

In stark contrast to previous years where mud-slinging and dildo-throwing have dominated, New Zealand's national day this year, and the days leading up to it, were mostly drama-free. Waitangi Day commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. 

While a speech from National Party leader Simon Bridges did raise some eyebrows in Waitangi - especially Winston Peters' - and Brian Tamaki presented a controversial sermon, political commentator Dr Bryce Edwards said it was a calm occasion in the historic Northland village. 

"It's incredibly harmonious and very pleasant, and there is not really the sign of politics and discontent or conflict that there has been in the past," said Dr Edwards, who was present at Waitangi.

"It is very clear that this has been quite a special Waitangi Day and that there has been a new spirit of togetherness and harmony, and despite being an election year, there is just not the overt politics and protest there once was."

Dr Edwards, who works as a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, suggested Aotearoa's society "is changing" and there "seems to be maturing or a greater acceptance of Waitangi Day as both a time to both celebrate, commemorate and reflect on race-relations".

However, he also said the Coalition Government had calmed concerns in Māoridom by listening and communicating effectively, even if the problems themselves had not yet been solved. Among the issues raised with the Government prior to Waitangi Day were Ihumātao, Oranga Tamariki's uplifts and Whanau Ora.

"I think a lot of Māori leaders have been almost disarmed by this Government because they are being listened to," he said.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that the Government is going to be able to solve those issues or sufficiently get Māoridom back onside on those issues, but at this moment they do seem to have convinced Māori leadership to give them another chance at least."

Dr Edwards also said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Andrew Little had impressed with their speeches. Little's speech on Tuesday was entirely in Te Reo Māori. 

"This is the most depoliticised Waitangi Day we have had in many years, possibly decades, and that is a new era we are moving into and that possibly suits the Government, it is not one that suits the Opposition."

Dr Edwards suggested the two main political parties have deliberately different strategies when approaching Waitangi Day. While National may want to politicise events in order to foster discontent among New Zealanders who aren't interested in what the national day represents and turn that into votes, Dr Edwards said: "Labour wants to kinda push some of that anger down, bring everyone together."

Bridges spoke at Te Whare Rūnanga on Tuesday, complementing the Waitangi Grounds before getting political. He said the Prime Minister promised to reduce poverty and "failed to deliver", and then launched into an attack on the Government's infrastructure announcement, doubling down on claims that National's ideas had been pinched. 

Peters, who had intended not to speak, chose to anyway, accusing Bridges of politicising the event. It came after an awkward confrontation between the two earlier in the day. 

Much of the calmness may also be attributed to events taking place at Te Whare Rūnanga or the 'upper marae'.

It is at the lower Te Tii Marae where drama has regularly unfolded. In 2004, Prime Minister Helen Clark was met with a barrage of protesters following controversy surrounding the Foreshore and Seabed Act. 

It's also where former Prime Minister John Key - during his first visit to Waitangi as leader in 2009 - was grabbed and harassed by two men who had to be dragged away by security. Former National MP Steven Joyce was pelted in the face with a dildo back in 2016 outside the Te Tii Marae grounds over objections to the TPPA, and it's also where former National leader Don Brash was hit in the face with mud. 

Questioned whether events could return to Te Tii Marae, Peters said earlier this week it was a decision for locals, but doesn't want to see a repeat of anti-establishment behaviour. 

"Some of us got sick and tired of our traditions being stomped on by every outsider that turned up here - we just had a gut's full of it."