Dr Bryce Edwards.
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Dr Bryce Edwards.

It is very telling that the biggest conflict around Waitangi Day this year was over whether National Party leader Simon Bridges should have given an overtly political speech on the Treaty Grounds on Tuesday. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this, it illustrated how little conflict there was, but also just how depoliticised the event has become.

Waitangi Day 2020 ended up being the most harmonious for many years, if not decades. This is largely because the politics have been deliberately exorcised, and Māori critics have largely been disarmed. This is a point I’m reported as making yesterday by Jamie Ensor and Heather McCarron in their news article, Waitangi Day 2020 least political in years, Māori feel listened to – commentator.

I’m quoted as saying: “I think a lot of Māori leaders have been almost disarmed by this Government because they are being listened to… 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.”

The newfound harmony – or, at least, the neutralising of conflict – is very much in the interests of the Government. And the Prime Minister and her colleagues have largely succeeded in their attempts to disarm and assuage the discontented.

The new mood of Waitangi Day is nicely discussed in yesterday’s Southland Times editorial, praising the evolution towards a more low-key mood, which the newspaper says better reflects the national character – see: Waitangi as it should be.

Here’s the editorial’s main point: “The nation has let it be known, and clearly, that the Waitangi commemorations aren’t to be seen as open slather for naked political point scoring, at least not vainglorious protests that assume extravagant or distasteful conduct is somehow sanctified, let alone excused, by the day of commemoration. The message is clear; you can make a point but not be a jerk about it. Nationwide, Waitangi was commemorated and speakers sought to evoke messages of unity and paths for progress.”

The newspaper also approves of the Government’s symbolism in the way it deals with Waitangi, especially the ministerial breakfast cook-up for the masses on the Treaty Grounds, “which is fine, if not exactly the sort of loaves-and-fishes miracle one or two commentators inflated it to be. Foodsafe checks may have been in order, given her Government’s tendency to roll our undercooked delivery of policies. The PM also took a turn paddling a waka, which again is an agreeable metaphor as far as political optics are concerned, and her toddler Neve was seen helping pack away boxes for recycling. Again, some eyes may roll at this as a photo-opportunity, but that’s a bit sour. Most would surely recognise it as garden-variety parenting of a sort that could be seen up and down the country.”

Probably the best commentary in regard to the new mood at Waitangi this year, comes in Simon Wilson’s reflective piece, The passions of Waitangi (paywalled), in which he tries to explain that “something has changed at Waitangi”.

So, what’s different? Wilson explains: “The pleasure on people’s faces – all kinds of people – is palpable. It’s not that race relations, poverty and inequality have been consigned to history. Nor that everything is now sweetness and light. Passions still run high, some higher than ever. But a space for reflection has been created and, in that space, it’s become clear the loudest people are not always the most passionate people, and anger isn’t the only passion. The sense of respect is strong, the sense of discourse too. Nothing much gets thrown. If you could get everyone to visit, or if you could bottle the spirit of Waitangi and put it in every town’s water supply, we’d be such a richer country.”

Wilson says much of this evolution is due to the change of government: “Jacinda Ardern was intent on reducing poverty, reaching across the race divide and, very clearly, restoring the Government’s commitment to the abandoned art of oratory.” And the PM, Wilson reports, has been anointed a “wahine toa” (warrior woman) by Māori at Waitangi, putting her in a category with the likes of Whina Cooper.

But is the newfound depoliticisation of Waitangi real or artificial? One political journalist thinks it was actually “one of the most intensely political Waitangi Days in years” – see Thomas Coughlan’s Tense commemorations in Waitangi set the stage for hotly contested election.

Even so, Coughlan’s column emphasises how much Māori leaders and activists were placated: “Leading up to the event, there had been much focus on issues around Oranga Tamariki, Whānau Ora, and Ihumātao, none of these issues appeared to cause massive concern at Waitangi itself. Whānau Ora was raised at a closed-door meeting with iwi leaders on Wednesday, but it appears the Government’s increase of funding for the agency quashed most criticism about the way it was being run. Ihumātao was the topic of a small hikoi, but there seemed to be satisfaction with the process being run to find a resolution to the standoff. Andrew Little won plaudits for his speech at the Tuesday powhiri, which was entirely in te reo Māori.”

In another report, Coughlan explains the Government’s depoliticisation strategy for Waitangi, and for Māori politics in general: “The Government wants to depoliticise Waitangi Day. The idea is to take the emphasis away from the day itself, creating a week of commemorative events. You can’t take the politics out of the day completely of course, but it’s true that even the protests this year are not what they have been in years and decades past. There’s no mud slinging, and absolutely no projectile dildos” – see: Jacinda Ardern to tell Māori ‘progress not perfection’ at key Waitangi address.

The success of the Government’s strategy was evident in the fact that even the Ihumātao protestors were kind about the PM, with one protestor giving her the “wahine toa” title. Clearly Ardern’s new line – that the Government’s achievements are “progress but not perfection” – is working. And this phrase goes alongside Ardern’s refrain that “There is more mahi to do”.

As to the Government’s notion Waitangi should be politics-free and that National breached that convention, Coughlan points out, “It was a pretense of course – Ardern and Peters’ remarks were made at an event where the Government was announcing the allocation of millions of dollars of Provincial Growth Fund money, a transparent push from NZ First for rural votes.  The event underlines the incumbent advantage Governments enjoy: they can be nakedly political while claiming not to be. The opposition enjoys no such privilege.”

Newsroom political editor Sam Sachdeva also reported the less political or conflictual mood at Waitangi this year: “It was a relaxed end to what was a fairly tranquil visit for the Prime Minister, if only in terms of politics rather than scheduling. The drama and controversy that accompanied Waitangi Days past seems to have receded, with only a handful of protesters voicing their concerns and without any need for security to intervene” – see: Patience, positivity on display for Ardern’s Waitangi visit.

Although he points to some of the changes in the way the events are organised at Waitangi that have contributed to this, the Government’s orientation to Māori has played the central role: “Ardern and company have succeeded in convincing Māori that while they may not have all the answers to the problems they face, they are willing to have a real discussion about how to find them.”

Sachdeva points out that there remain “many justified criticisms of this government, including a number of significant issues for Māori that may be difficult to resolve”, but, by and large, iwi leaders are praising rather than complaining about the Government’s role. For example, after the Iwi Chairs Forum meeting with the PM, “Te Rarawa iwi leader Haami Piripi told RNZ the hui was ‘was one of the best meetings that we have had yet between ourselves and the Government’.”

A key role in winning Māori leaders over to the Government’s line that they are making good progress for Māori was played by the Minister of Treaty Settlements, Andrew Little, who gave an eight minute speech in te reo Māori without notes.

The strategic smarts of this is explained by Pattrick Smellie: “it was impressive – but it was also pure politics. The idea that at least one Labour minister should speak at length in te reo was born eight or nine months ago, and designed to do two things: shore up Labour as the natural party of choice for Māori voters and, as one highly placed observer put it: ‘to make Simon Bridges look dumb'” – see: Election year phony war in full swing at Waitangi (paywalled).

Most observers were duly impressed. Simon Wilson wrote: “Andrew Little, now known to some as Anaru Iti, took a decisive step to show willing on that, speaking for the Government on Tuesday entirely in te reo. He walked over the bridge to Te Ao Māori, as the PM put it, and they embraced him for it” – see: Andrew Little steals the show at Waitangi (paywalled).

Wilson reports that in response, “The tangata whenua then sang back to him. It was a rare and extraordinary honour.” In contrast, he says Bridges gave a highly political speech and “made a fool of himself”. In Wilson’s view, Bridges was trying to speak to those beyond Waitangi: “His message wasn’t for the people in front of him, it was for the voters at home. And he’d decided the only way he’d even get to deliver it was if he ruffled some feather cloaks in the process.”

In his account, Smellie agrees with this, but suggests that it was a bit rich for the Government politicians to accuse Bridges of politicising what was already a highly-political event. In fact, Smellie goes further and suggests that the whole Waitangi set-up has become something of an artificial Davos-like elite and media-managed event. He says, “the formalities are a highly controlled environment where the audience is largely the media, a lot of cops, along with grandees of Northland and national politics.”

Furthermore, without the grassroots politics, it all feels a bit staged: “There’s a slight ‘Potemkin village,’ feel to the whole thing now that proceedings have moved away from the comparative anarchy of the ‘lower marae’, where the politics tended to overheat and give TV cameras a reliably divisive spectacle on a day of intended national unity. (A Potemkin village is a fake village created for propaganda purposes.)”

And Smellie’s evaluation of the PM’s showing on Tuesday isn’t as positive as the rest of the media: “Perhaps the limpest performance of the day was from the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who promised to continue being held to account, acknowledged there is ‘always more mahi’ to do and did what she will do all year: rattle off a long list of the government’s announcements to date. Compared to two years ago, when she first spoke at Waitangi, it was a flat performance, phoned in for a friendly crowd.”

Finally, despite all the attempts to depoliticise Waitangi Day this year, politics is still vitally central to the whole week, and Leonie Hayden has captured this in two excellent columns, ‘Hold us to account’: has Jacinda Ardern honoured her 2018 Waitangi pledges?, and Waitangi Day without the politicians is the best Waitangi Day of all.