John Armstrong: The tiresome antics at Waitangi have undermined the power and symbolism of the occasion

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Bill English has done the right thing in following John Key's example and opting to maintain National's prime ministerial boycott of national day commemorations at Waitangi.

That remains the case, despite English opening himself up to accusations that his refusal to front at the birthplace of the nation's founding document, on the anniversary of its signing, amounts to both a serious dereliction of prime ministerial duty failure of leadership.

Mr Taurua said a letter written over Mr English's right to speak "didn't say what I thought it meant".
Source: 1 NEWS

The new prime minister's decision to follow in his predecessor's footsteps, and stay away from Waitangi, is the right one not only for himself.

It is the right one for the National Party.

Of even more significance, it is more likely than not the right decision for the country.

The brutal truth is that while the Treaty's influence has grown to the point where it is now cemented into New Zealand's unwritten constitution, Waitangi Day is sinking under the weight of its conflicting roles.

It doubles as a mechanism for acknowledging legitimate Maori grievances past and present while also serving as the country's national day and which is about projecting an image of unity and happy families.

Divisiveness and inclusiveness are oil and water. They don't mix.

The tiresome antics regularly on display at Waitangi have undermined the power and symbolism of the occasion.

The wider New Zealand public which should be happily embracing the proceedings instead feels alienated by them.

No other country treats its national day in such tawdry fashion.

The (largely silent) majority has never had a say when it comes to Waitangi Day arrangements.

Those New Zealanders have lost patience with that debate. Having been shut out of it, they have chosen to exit it completely.

It is increasingly evident that what happens at Waitangi has little relevance to how most people choose to spend the day.

And increasingly they are finding much more satisfying and happier ways of marking it.

That is forcing politicians to make a choice. They either subject themselves to the insults and ignominy from a few.

Or they distance themselves from the goings-on at Waitangi and align themselves with the majority.

It is an easy choice to make. It is evident in Key and then English refusing to make the annual trek to Waitangi.

The pertinent question now is whether a National Party prime minister will ever again make the trip.

That might seem to be unthinkable. There have been other prime ministers who have boycotted Waitangi after being treated like garbage.

They responded by refusing to return for more of the same the following year.

But they all subsequently relented and once again hit the road to the Bay of Islands.

But the no-shows by Key and now English, have raised strong doubts about whether that assumption still holds.

The unthinkable has now entered the realm of the possible.

English's announcement is thus of huge significance.

English would not have been welcomed at Waitangi like some kind of Prodigal Son

But English had far less choice in the matter than might be seem to be the case.

Had English opted to go to Waitangi this year, he would have been intimating that his predecessor had been wrong in not doing so.

The far bigger risk, however, would have been that the reception accorded to English would have shown that Key had been extremely wise in choosing to celebrate Waitangi Day as far away from the Bay of Islands as political decency allowed.

English would not have been welcomed at Waitangi like some kind of Prodigal Son.

He would have been viewed by those jaundiced against National as the Finance Minister who has been the prime driver of National's contentious reforms of the country's social services.

Had English opted to go to Waitangi, he would effectively have painted a target on the back of his suit jacket.

Absenting himself from Waitangi is not only the right decision for English, it is the right decision for the National Party going into election year.

English did not need National's pollsters to tell him that staying away from Waitangi is very much in sync with the thinking of a large majority of New Zealanders.

For them, the posturing and jostling at Waitangi has become a Theatre of the Absurd.

Every year, the same characters appear on the same platforms; be it Te Tii marae or the Treaty grounds, uttering the same dialogue.

English was wrong in saying this makes New Zealanders "cringe a bit". It makes them cringe a lot.

However, the annual parade of the pathetic will continue for as long as the country's national day remains hostage to the factional fighting within Ngapuhi, the iwi which hosts Waitangi Day events.

That is intolerable. The same has to be said of the country's leaders being forced to run a gauntlet of verbal and potentially physical abuse.

It is likewise unacceptable that Ngapuhi refuse to show respect for the office of prime minister regardless of who is currently occupying it.

It is a very different story when it comes to the office of Minister of Maori Affairs which is treated with respect regardless of the political leanings of the incumbent. Funny that.

The fun is coming to an end, however. English has made it very clear that National is no longer going to be party to this nonsense.

In the end, Ngapuhi made it easy for English to convince himself that he was making the right decision in wiping Waitangi from his travel plans.

English's office this week released very recent correspondence between Wayne Eagleson, his chief of staff, and Ngapuhi.

It revealed that as late as last week, the Prime Minister was still awaiting an invitation from Ngapuhi elders to attend this year's commemorations which are now less than a month away.

Regardless of whether or not he ever had any intention of going to Waitangi, the time being taken by Ngapuhi to finalise the invitation would have rung alarm bells in his mind.

It was warning enough that the iwi was deeply divided on him being present at Waitangi.

Not only was that insulting in the extreme.

If he went to Waitangi he would be walking into a firestorm which was not of his making, but one which would see him end up being the sole victim.

If English had any doubts about his decision not to go to the Far North, they would have been eradicated there and then.

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