We left Auckland at 7am, and were in Waitangi by 10.30. Driving through Paihia into Te Tii and Waitangi, we were surprised at the numer of stalls that had sprung up selling souvenirs, food and various other Waitangi – related products. Northland/ Taitokerau is one of the poorest areas in New Zealand, but it comes alive for our country’s founding day.
Having watched the somewhat unfriendly welcome that John Key recieved upon entering the marae, we were slightly nervous about what treatment the Labour delegation might recieve. While Labour has certainly gone a long way in winning back Maori trust, the hated Foreshore and Seabed fiasco is only 10 years in the past, and the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s, which caused unemployment, especially amongst Maori, to skyrocket is also still fresh in the minds of many, there is still ample reason amongst Maori to resent the Labour Party.
However, upon entering Te Tii Marae we pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome we received. The speakers,including Kingi Taurere and Maanu Paul, co-chair of the Maori council, spoke about the improving relationship between Maori and Labour, with Taurere recounting some funny stories about him and Annette King. Throughout the entire ceremony, points that were raised time and time again were the abandonment of the environment to oil drilling and business interests by National, and John Key’s lack of any interest in the struggles that Maori experience every day. This was highlighted, as Kingi Taurere said, by the fact that John Key had consistently left Te Tii Marae without staying to ‘have a cup of tea’ with attendees, and discuss Maori issues and ideas. Taurere issued an invitation to David Cunliffe to one up Key, and not be like a seagull – ‘coming, shitting and going’.
When Cunliffe spoke, he basically nailed many of the issues that affect Maori the most. He spoke about protecting New Zealand’s oceans from drillings with low or no standards, and problems in the forestry sector, especially the deaths of workers and the shipping of logs off to China to be processed and then sold back to New Zealand. Cunliffe also touched on the issue of child poverty and education, reflecting the recent Best Start policy. This was evidently met with approval from the audience, again signalling that Maori have grown tired of the National Party neglecting them and making policy to benefit a select few.
Metiria Turei has also distinguished herself today as the first female party leader to speak in the marae at Waitangi. She reaffirmed the ongoing commitment of the Green Party to focus on Maori issues, not least of which include the kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the environment that is so important to Maori. Metiria also showed that ridiculous media spun issues like decriminalisation of Marijuana aren’t going to come between Labour and the Greens after the next election.
Te arewhana i te ruma (elephant in the room) was the Foreshore and Seabed scandal. While speakers from both sides mentioned the reconciliation between Maori and Labour, no one specifically mentioned the legislation that extinguished iwi right to settlements and was dubbed ‘the last land grab’. I think that Labour should just straight up apologise for the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Labour has moved on, in both personnel and ideas to the point where most in the party look back upon the events of 2004 with at the very least shame, and many with anger. Labour has ummed and ahhed about whether or not they will apologise for a while, but really they should. David Cunliffe echoed the words of Wiremu Ratana and Michael Joseph Savage today when he said that Labour would not govern unless they had the support of Maori. While the spectre of the Foreshore and Seabed persists, Labour will not get the full support of Maori around New Zealand. Apologising should not and would not embarrass the party, and would take one simple speech, and in exchange Labour will once again be able to tap the prized Maori vote. Of course, the atmosphere in the room today demonstrates that Maori are moving away from the struggling Maori Party and back to Labour, but by doing what is long overdue Labour can make itself the first choice of Maori, and not just the option when all alternatives are exhausted.
The first day of Waitangi was an incredibly positive day for both people and party, which was shown in the TVOne commentary noting that this had been the most peaceful ceremony around Te Tii Marae for a long time. Tomorrow, we’re up at 5.30 to head up to the Treaty House for the dawn service, which should bring many more exciting developments. I think that David Cunliffe should feel confident in a renewed Maori commitment to Labour. However, this does not mean that we can or should forget about our history, and issues like the Foreshore and Seabed will inevitably remain in Maori and political consciousness until it is resolved.