Waitangi: Speaking rights back in spotlight ahead of parliamentary pōwhiri

Speaking rights are back in the spotlight at Waitangi after confusion over whether political leaders could speak at a pōwhiri at the Treaty Grounds on Sunday.

Earlier, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said the Waitangi National Trust had "determined they did not want political leaders to speak in the pōwhiri as they had in previous years".

"It is their event and the Prime Minister accepts their rules and tikanga."

A new statement from a spokesperson for the Prime Minister was released on Saturday afternoon.

"As we've always said we're in the hands of the National Trust as it is their event. If they are ok with the Prime Minister speaking in the powhiri tomorrow he happily will."

The Prime Minister's Office also released the letter sent from the Trust. It said, "we invite you to arrange a kaikōrero from your party, who will be someone other than the political leader who will speak at the panel discussion following the pōwhiri and kai".

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for National Party leader Christopher Luxon said the party had "received an assurance from Waitangi Trust Chair, Pita Tipene, that it is up to the manuhuri [guests] to decide who speaks at the pōwhiri". 

"Mr Tipene has confirmed it is totally appropriate for National Leader Christopher Luxon to speak. So Mr Luxon will travel to Waitangi today as planned."

Speaking to Newshub before the Prime Minister's Office's statement was released, deputy Labour leader and Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis suggested Hipkins was at that point intending to speak.

He denied that was at loggerheads with the Trust's position and didn't expect any issues.

"I don't think so. They understand that manuhiri [guests] determine who speak for them."

He said he had been in correspondence with the Trust since late last year.

"The biggest thing for me is that we make sure the dignity and mana of Ngāpuhi is intact and that things go smoothly. I have always said that we need to make sure politicians aren't the centre of the occasions, that we are here for Te Tiriti o Waitangi, not for ourselves."

He suggested the Trust write to political parties in advance to remind them of that.

A political panel is being hosted later in the day where leaders can speak.

At a press conference on Saturday morning, Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said her party would take direction from the organisers.

"We will decide accordingly and put an appropriate speaker in place to honour the tikanga of the pōwhiri process… we haven't heard from them directly. We will take that direction in the pōwhiri briefing tomorrow and we will make our decisions accordingly."

Speaking rights have long been a matter of conversation at Waitangi. While Prime Ministers and political leaders have spoken in the past, there has been controversy on occasion.

In 1998, Helen Clark - as Opposition leader - was pictured in tears at Te Tii marae after activist and prominent Ngāpuhi member the late Titewhai Harawira took issue with Clark, a non-Māori, being allowed to speak while Māori women were not allowed.

Sir John Key ditched Waitangi commemorations in 2016 after limitations were put on where he could speak.

National leader Judith Collins vowed to skip Waitangi commemorations in 2022 if she wasn't allowed to speak alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was.

"I want to make this very clear: I will not be attending Waitangi and not be given speaking rights if I am either in the role of Prime Minister or as leader of the Opposition," she said at the time.

"It is simply not acceptable. The moment we are judged solely on our gender is also the moment we give in to that and actually I'm not prepared to so that's my line in the sand. Either do it properly or don't bother."

Collins was ousted as leader in November 2021, while Waitangi events were cancelled in 2022 due to COVID-19.