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PM in Waitangi speaking dispute, won't go

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 8/01/2017

Prime Minister Bill English doesn't think he'll be short of invitations for Waitangi Day after refusing to attend usual commemorations on Te Tii Marae after another dispute between the government and elders.

It will be the second year in a row the prime minsiter won't attend main commemorations because of a stoush over speaking rights, after former prime minister John Key refused to attend last year.

Mr English revealed on Monday he sought clarification about speaking rights this year but his office informed him while he was invited to the powhiri he would not be able to speak.

A letter was sent to Waitangi organisers by Mr English's chief of staff Wayne Eagleson seeking to "avoid the uncertainties that arose in the lead up to Waitangi 2016".

A response from Ngati Kawa Taituha indicated the elders preferred customs be followed this year, rather than allowing the prime minister to speak freely as has occurred previously.

"We seriously believe that it is more appropriate for our tikanga (customary rituals) to be conducted in such a manner where your Maori representatives speak or mihi on the prime minster's behalf during the powhiri, pay their respects to tangata whenua," he said in the letter, published by Fairfax.

Mr English would be free to engage with Ngapuhi, address the nation and "talk politics freely and uninhibited" on a stage after the powhiri, he added.

But Mr English has refused to attend, believing not having speaking rights at the powhiri is disrespectful to New Zealanders and the role of prime minister.

"I've made a decision that the arrangements they want to put in place were not acceptable, not respectful, so I'll be celebrating Waitangi elsewhere," he said.

"The marae committee's decided that the prime minister of New Zealand cant' speak on their marae and that, as far as I'm concerned, is not respectful of the role."

Mr English said he wouldn't change his mind if speaking rights were reinstated and didn't think he'd be short of invitations to other events.

He expects to celebrate Waitangi Day in Auckland.

His refusal to attend came as a surprise to Waitangi organiser and NZ First MP Pita Paraone who revealed in November that Ngapuhi had decided to welcome back then prime minister John Key to Te Tii Marae after his refusal to attend last year.

Mr Key was initially banned, but later told he could return if he didn't discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a condition he found unacceptable.

Mr Paraone told NZ Newswire he wasn't aware that anything had changed since that decision.

"That's certainly a surprise to me and I've been talking with the people of the marae ... in fact they were planning to welcome him and the government," he said.

"At the end of the day we're disappointed that our PM has chosen not to come to Waitangi and to commemorate the signing of our founding documents and instead has chosen to meet a group he has met with on a regular basis."

Mr English will meet with the Iwi Chair's Forum and attend events in Auckland instead, while his deputy Paula Bennett will lead a government delegation to the dawn service on February 6.

"If she is representing the government then we will certainly welcome her and other members of the government," Mr Paraone said.

ACT leader David Seymour has welcomed the opportunity to take commemorations "on the road".

"It has never been clear why one iwi gets to monopolise the celebrations. The Treaty wasn't just signed at Waitangi, it went on tour and was signed by chiefs all over the country," he said.

"A bit of competition among locations might help to lift standards of behaviour, bringing some dignity and joy back to this special day."

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