The prime minister spent his first Waitangi Day in office not at the treaty grounds, but at Bastion Point, where Simon Wilson watched him give two of the most surprising Waitangi speeches in living memory.
Did you know Bill English used Waitangi Day to praise the great protest struggle of Bastion Point?
He made two speeches on the marae at Bastion Point that day, both of them in front of TV cameras and other media. Almost none of what he said got reported. Instead, there was a frenzy of excitement over his utterly inconsequential phone call with Donald Trump. But what the prime minister said on the marae at Bastion Point was extraordinary.
So what did he say?
He told them the modern history of Ngāti Whātua was a story of great success. And he wanted them to know he did not view the protest as an aberration in that story, but as a vital part of it. Later, over breakfast in the wharekai, he built on his theme.
There was a large audience – Ngāti Whātua, politicians, community representatives and media – and he said we are all engaged in a “great enterprise” of building a country based on “fairness, tolerance and respect”. Then he said, “We’ve all got better at it because of our struggles over the treaty.” …
Bill English acknowledged the “massive achievements of Ngāti Whātua in such a short space of time” and said he wanted to “celebrate a group of people with the leadership and courage to make… decisions”.
He said he knew what it cost the kaumātua who negotiated treaty settlements. At another iwi, one leader had told him he’d been unable to sleep the night before they signed. “He said he struggled with the burden of knowing he must say to his ancestors, ‘That’s enough.’ And he struggled with the responsibility of saying the same to his descendants.”
There are so many ways in which treaty settlements are different for Māori and Pākehā, and that’s one of them: Pākehā don’t think like that.
Deciding to settle wouldn’t be an easy decision I’m sure, as you would feel the weight of expectations from your Iwi past present and future.
“In the regions,” he said, “and I include Auckland in that, I would say that almost without exception the organisations that are most committed to development are the local iwi.”
That’s another remarkable thing for him to say. Iwi are economic powerhouses in the regions and major agents of social cohesion. Despite what Don Brash and his band of Hobson’s Pledge ostriches might want us to think, they’re not stripping the country of its assets and infrastructure – they’re building them.
Ngai Tahu has said there are a number of SOEs they would like to invest in – the benefit being they are an investor that will never leave New Zealand and be here permanently.
First, have we ever before had a National Party prime minister who speaks so unequivocally in support of Māori agency – and of Māori activism that lays the foundation for Māori agency?
Second, if the Bastion Point protest was historically invaluable, what does that say for other protest movements today – inside Māoridom and more widely?
Third, if English will say these things on the marae, will he say them in Parliament, and in the regions, to business groups and to his own party – will he say them to audiences who are not already primed to agree? He’s a diffident leader, a quiet explainer more than an engaging winner of hearts and minds, and he’s as liable as most politicians to duck the difficult issues when it’s hard to stand up for them.
Mind you, he probably thought he was saying all this to a wider audience because he probably assumed his Waitangi Day speeches would be reported. Especially as he made it clear he knew Ngāti Whātua’s achievements were founded on that great protest occupation. Audrey Young in the Herald covered some of it; almost no other media mentioned anything. It’s not English’s fault if he gets ignored when he speaks up.
This is why it is good we have sites like The Spinoff.