OPINION: The national hui at Tūrangawaewae Marae saw 10,000 people united in the face of actions by the coalition government, including its proposed Treaty Principles Bill. John Campbell was there.

History happens on single days.

Yesterday, at Tūrangawaewae, will be one of them.

“Why are you here?”, I asked Tame Iti.

“Vibrations”, he replied.

The rest of us will feel them over the days and months and years ahead.

Veteran Māori activist Tama Iti was there for the vibrations.

Initial estimates of how many people would come had begun at 3000. Then 4000 registered, so estimates grew to 5000. Then 7000. By lunchtime, organisers were saying 10,000 had arrived. There wasn’t room inside for them all. A large marquee across the road was full, all day. Every seat, everywhere, was taken. There was hardly standing room.

Not a seat was empty, every marquee was full. (All photos by John Campbell)

This special place, which has held tangi for royalty, which is where the Tainui treaty settlement was signed, which was visited by Nelson Mandela, and Queen Elizabeth II, and many of our greatest rangatira, has seldom seen so many people.

But no one objected. To standing. To the steaming heat. To the fact that sometimes people were too far away from the speakers, or the screens relaying them, to hear.

New Zealand First’s deputy leader, Shane Jones, told RNZ the hui could turn into a “monumental moan session”.

But it didn’t. Somehow, the word I keep coming back to is joyful.

The National Hui for Unity it was called. And it felt like exactly that.

Iwi after iwi: the big 10

On the way to Ngāruawāhia early yesterday morning, I pulled into a truck-stop near Bombay, at the southernmost end of the Auckland motorway system, to meet the Ngāpuhi convoy travelling down from the far north.

Some had begun their journey way up, in Kaikohe, at 3am. They spilled out into the half light of an overcast morning and inhaled the beginning of what would be an extraordinary day.

It’s easy for the significance of this delegation to be lost amid all the other arrivals. The people who’d come from even further away. Iwi after iwi. Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou, Tainui, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tahu, Te Arawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Maniapoto – the big ten, all there, in declaratory numbers.

Just a few members of the Ngati Porou contingent who drove over on Friday from Tairāwhiti to attend the hui.

Ngāi Tahu representatives had taken a huge journey by road, then Cook Strait ferry, then road.

A friend’s father flew up from Invercargill.

But the size and standing of Ngāpuhi’s delegation provides some insight into how very significant this hui was.

Ngāpuhi aren’t a Kīngitanga iwi. They don’t see Kīngi Tūheitia as their king. And they contain Waitangi within their broad, northern boundaries – home, of course, to the Waitangi commemorations, our most famous form of national hui.

And yet they came, hundreds of Ngāpuhi. Some wearing korowai made especially for the occasion. Some the direct descendants of Treaty signatories. A waiata, composed for the hui, rehearsed beyond newness into a heartfelt and singular voice.

“Why are you going?” I asked Mane Tahere, the chair of Te Runanga-Ā-Iwi-Ō-Ngāpuhi. “It feels significant that Ngāpuhi are attending in such numbers.”

“Because”, he answered, “the challenges we face do not discriminate amongst iwi. We held three hui to discuss whether we should come, and who would come, and what our message would be. The final hui was only last Saturday. I wouldn’t have put our rūnanga resources into something we didn’t collectively support. This was hapū rangatiratanga. Hapū after hapū spoke and said we should go.”

Why?

Mane Tahere, the chair of Te Runanga-Ā-Iwi-Ō-Ngāpuhi.

“Because the question we have to ask as Māori is how we activate ourselves, re-activate ourselves, for 2024? How do we say to the coalition government, ‘hang on, what do you mean, and what are you doing?’ And the best way to do that is to do it together. Now is the time for Māori unity.”

A powerful rejection

The National Hui for Unity was only called by Kīngi Tuheitia Pootatau Te Wherowhero VII (Kīngi Tuheitia) at the beginning of December. That so very many people would arrive here, only six weeks later, in the holiday-season slowness of the third week of January, speaks not only to how resoundingly those present reject the coalition government’s Treaty Principles Bill, but also to a strength of unity already existing.

That is to say, a unified rejection of what Kīngitanga Chief of Staff, Archdeacon Ngira Simmonds, described as the “unhelpful and divisive rhetoric” of the election campaign.

“Maaori can lead for all”, said Ngira Simmonds, at the beginning of this month, “and we are prepared to do that.” *

This is part of a growing sense, as Ngāpuhi’s Mane Tahere told me, that “we’ve turned a corner”.

The corner is that u word – unity. The increasingly urgent sense of the need for a collective response to the coalition government.

And, without great external fanfare, these relationships have already been building.

The Kīngitanga movement has begun sending some of its most senior figures north for Waitangi Day commemorations – into the heart of Ngāpuhi country. And again, like Ngāpuhi coming to Ngāruawāhia, this reflects a belief that by Māori for Māori, all Māori, is the strongest possible response to a government they fear is intent on division.

This year, for the first time since 2009, Kīngi Tūheitia himself (who has Ngāpuhi whakapapa on his father’s side) will be attending Waitangi.

Symbolic? Yes.

Significant? Yes.

Unity.

Mana motuhake (self-government).

“Look at all these people,” Tame Iti said to me. “They’re here to listen. To learn. The first layer of mana motuhake is yourself.”

A group of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei kuia waiting to go onto Tūrangawaewae Marae.

All protest is a form of risk.

Risk that it goes awry – and costs support, rather than galvanises it.

Risk that it arms your most cynical critics with the material for derision or contempt.

Risk that no one notices. Or that the turnout is so small that those who have the luxury of being able to not protest can turn away.

Some politicians may tell you that 10,000 people is not very many. I would say otherwise. In 30 years of covering politics, I have never attended a New Zealand party-political rally that attracted anywhere near that many. Or even half that number.

What happened at Tūrangawaewae yesterday was a triumph for all those involved.

In the striking heart of the mid-afternoon, I passed Tukoroirangi Morgan, the chair of the Waikato-Tainui executive board. We were going in opposite directions over the sunburnt road.

Chair of the Waikato-Tainui executive board Tukoroirangi Morgan.

“How’s it going, Tuku?”, I asked him.

“I’s amazing”, he replied. “All these people.” And then he stopped, looked out over the everyone, everywhere, and repeated himself. “Amazing.”

The challenge of history

Tūrangawaewae is located just outside Ngāruawāhia, directly across the Waikato River from the shops in that little township. Somewhere, just to its east, the new Waikato Expressway has stolen many of the estimated 17,000 cars a day that once passed through here. For decades, Ngāruawāhia was a pie and petrol stop on the main road between Hamilton and Auckland.

Not so much, any longer.

The challenge of history is to survive it.

And Kīngitanga itself was a kind of survival strategy.

It wasn’t this simple, of course, but a famous saying of the second Māori King, Tāwhiao, broadly speaks to the hopes of the Kīngitanga movement: “Ki te kotahi te kākaho ka whati ki te kāpuia e kore e whati.” The Māori Dictionary translates it prosaically: “If there is but one reed it will break, but if it is bunched together it will not.”

Yesterday, the reeds felt tight and strong.

“Why are you here?” I asked people, over and over.

The answer was almost always a variation of what Christina Te Namu told me. Christina, too, is Ngāpuhi. “I just wanted to support our people”, she said. “Now is the time for us to stand together as one.”

Christina Te Namu of Ngāpuhi.

A group of women from Ngati Porou stopped to say kia ora.

It seems almost inadequate to state it like this, but they were there to be there. They had driven from Tairawhiti because being there mattered. Every person I spoke to had come to be part of this declaration of solidarity.

‘An attempt to abolish the Treaty’

On Friday morning, something happened that gave this already significant day a vivid, extra weight.

My 1News colleague, Te Aniwa Hurihanganui, obtained details of the coalition Government’s Treaty Principles Bill. In its initial form it is not so much a re-evaluation of the role of the Treaty as an abandonment of it. Professor Margaret Mutu, speaking on 1News on Friday night, called it “an attempt to abolish the Treaty of Waitangi.”

This has arisen out of National’s coalition agreement with ACT.

I wrote about this at the end of last year, and also in the weeks after the election. I looked at the coalition agreements between National and ACT, and National and New Zealand First. And I noted their pointed focus on Māori. Some of it felt mean. What I called a strange, circling sense of a new colonialism.

I wrote about what I saw as ACT and New Zealand First’s experiments with a kind of “resentment populism”.

Who are we?, I asked. And where are we heading?

We’re heading to National reaching 41 percent in the first political poll of the year, “a massive jump”, as Thomas Coughlan described it in the NZ Herald, earlier this week. And we’re heading here, to Tūrangawaewae, and to thousands of people who travelled from throughout the country to collectively say, “no”.

In other words, we’re heading towards, or have already arrived in the vicinity of what PBS called the “divide and conquer populist agenda”.

And we’re heading to politics that purport to speak out against division, whilst arguably fomenting it.

In an opinion piece by David Seymour, published in the NZ Herald on Friday, the ACT leader begins with the sentence, “If there’s one undercurrent beneath so much of our politics, it’s division”.

Is David Seymour responding to division, or causing it?

The Treaty, he said, in December, “divides rather than unites people, as most treaties are supposed to do.”

But whose endgame is division? Really?

I’ve written before about the kind of populist politics that drive people to division, then throw up their hands and yell, “LOOK! DIVISION”, having wished for exactly that.

This, as Australian Academic Carol Johson wrote in The Conversation after the “no” vote in Australia’s Voice referendum, speaks to “a conception of equality controversially based on treating everyone the same, regardless of the different circumstances or particular disadvantages they face.”

That’s equality as David Seymour consistently claims to define it.

But do as they say, not as they do. There was a time when ACT received some handy support from National. Remember that famous cup of tea? Surely Seymour’s idea of equality would have insisted that Act get trounced than receive a leg-up?

The fascinating thing is that populism is typically structured around “the claim to speak for the underdog and the critique of privileged ‘elites’ and their disregard for the needs of ’ordinary people’”.

But it’s hard for National to occupy that space when the party has historically been supported by the “elite”, and when your leader is a former CEO who owns seven properties, and who received total remuneration of $4.2 million in his last full year at Air New Zealand.

So, you can do two things. You can outsource populism to your coalition partners. (And sit there with a face of injured innocence, like someone insisting it was really the dog who farted.) And you can allow coalition partners to redefine the definition of “elite”.

No-one does this more enthusiastically than Winston Peters.

During the months prior to the election, the New Zealand First leader said “elite” more often than Kylie Minogue has said “lucky”.

“Elite Māori”, “elite power-hungry Māori”, “an elite cabal of social and ideological engineers.”

The idea, as I wrote after the election, is to somehow persuade us that Māori are getting something the rest of us are not. And they are: a seven-years-shorter life expectancy, lower household income, persistent inequities in health, the greatest likelihood of leaving school with low or no qualifications, and an over-representation in the criminal justice system to such a great extent that Māori make up 52 percent of the prison population.

Elite as.

A shameful history

So, had this hui erupted into a kind of rage, would that have been a victory for populism? Would the divisions have become entrenched? Would Māori have been blamed for reacting to provocation, rather than the provocation itself being examined?

None of this is new. Which is why Māori recognise it.

In July 1863, the Crown issued a proclamation demanding: “All persons of the native race living in the Manukau district and the Waikato frontier are hereby required immediately to take the oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen”.

And those who wouldn’t?

“Natives refusing to do so are hereby warned forthwith to leave the district aforesaid, and retire to Waikato beyond Mangatawhiri.”

And anyone “not complying with this Order… will be ejected.”

Vincent O’Malley, in his remarkable book The Great War for New Zealand describes what happened next.

“On the same date some 1500 troops marched from Auckland for Drury.”

The troops didn’t stop. There are few more egregious and cynical predations in our history. South they went. Without just cause or provocation. Into Waikato.

Ngāruawāhia, Vincent O’Malley tells us, was “strategically important during the war because of its location at the confluence of the Waikato and Waipā rivers.”

“By 6 December 1863, Ngāruawāhia (‘the late head quarters of Māori sovereignty’ as one reporter dubbed it) had been deserted.”

At four o’clock that afternoon, a British flag was hoisted there.

And why does this story matter, still? 160 years later.

Because the Crown used the requirement for “allegiance”, the demand that Māori be loyal to it, so disingenuously. The language of colonisation purported to be about governance, about the role and rule of a single law, but it was a violation of law and a betrayal of the principles of government.

By the end of this rule of law, roughly 1.2 million acres of Waikato land had been “confiscated”.

And any opposition to it was defined, in law, as “rebellion”. And rebellion was justification for seizing more land.

This is our history. And part of it happened here, where the 10,000 people met yesterday.

Rising above the hatred

It was so hot by late morning that people were swimming in the Waikato River.

I wandered down from the crowds at the hui to talk to the people swimming. They were mostly young, although not all.

I met a ten year old who told me her parents had brought her so she could “find out where I’m from”.

She was from Waitara, in Taranaki, so this wasn’t a literal homecoming.

I wondered how many people had travelled big distances to have a new or reinvigorated sense of what it means to be Māori.

Heading back inside, I saw Professor Margaret Mutu.

There are few who have more rigorously applied their formidable intellect to making sense of the intersection of Māori and colonisation.

Professor Margaret Motu: "You have two parties to a treaty, and one of them can’t unilaterally redefine it."

She is of Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whātua and Scottish descent. She is Professor of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland. And, her university profile tells us, she holds a BSc in mathematics, an MPhil in Māori Studies, a PhD in Māori Studies specialising in linguistics and a DipTchg.

There was nowhere quiet for us to sit. But people kindly made space at the back of a kitchen prep area. And I asked her about the significance of the Treaty, for Māori, for the Crown, and for us all.

“Te Tiriti is where you go,” she said. “When things look as if they’re not working for you, you have a protection, and that’s where you go. It will always look after you. It will always protect you.”

“And while it seems clear that this government wants to abolish the Treaty,” Margaret Mutu continued, “that can never happen. For one thing, you have two parties to a treaty, and one of them can’t unilaterally redefine it. But also, our tūpuna were very, very wise. In the Treaty they invited Pākehā, the British, to come and live with us. But they had to live with us in peace. In peace and friendship. And that’s what the Treaty is. It’s a treaty of peace and friendship. You can’t redefine that. You can’t rewrite that. It was very wise and it was very clear.”

And here’s where Margaret Mutu helped me understand why the mood at Tūrangawaewae was so – and I wish I could find better words – hopeful, positive, constructive.

Manaaki manuhiri: to support and care for your guests.

“We invited Pākehā to live amongst us,”, she said. “And what a lot of our Pākehā friends don’t understand, I think, is that our tikanga requires us to manaaki manuhiri. And that’s about looking after everybody. Everybody. So even when we have hate thrown at us, we have to assert aroha. That’s what manaaki manuhiri requires, even when people are very badly behaved.” Margaret Mutu laughs at this. “So, people have come here today to find that strength. It’s not about fighting people. It’s to find that strength and unity to be able to rise above the hatred. And now we will just get on and do exactly that.”

Meeting the King

After lunch, I was invited to meet the King.

I’ve never been inside Tūrongo before, the royal residence. Or Māhinaarangi, which is both a famous meeting house and a unique kind of museum.

It looks out over the marae. And it gently contains, as if nestled in the palm of a large, open hand, photos and remembrances of those who’ve come before. The people who built Kīngitanga. Tāwhiao is there, his photo looking down from the wall. He died 130 years ago. How he would have marvelled, with great pride, at such a gathering, and perhaps, also, despaired at it still being necessary, in 2024.

Ngira Simmonds took me in. And I found myself, shy for once, able to stand and look out, viewing the unfolding of this new history from a place that is so central to the story of the history of us.

Kīngi Tuheita with his wife, Te Makau Ariki Atawhai Paki.

Kīngi Tuheitia was beaming.

“I didn’t sleep last night”, he told me. “But I knew this was the time for us to come together. And we have. We have.”

It occurred to me, as I walked back to stand amongst the thousands Kīngi Tuheitia was looking out to, with such delight, that the hui was the actualisation of Tāwhiao’s hope for the unbreakable strength of reeds tied together.

What was was happening felt transformative in the very fact it was happening. The mana motuhake of 10,000 people.

The vibrations.

Will the government feel them?

Will they survive the divisions of populism? Of politics that echo our repeated capacity to claim we are governing to unite people whilst governing against Māori?

Or maybe, this is how it all begins. In an historically large display of unity.

Rātana follows. Then Waitangi.

Yesterday ended with Kiingi Tuheitia speaking.

“The best protest we can do right now is be Maaori. Be who we are, live our values, speak our reo, care for our mokopuna, our awa, our maunga, just be Maaori. Maaori all day, every day. We are here, we are strong.”

The reeds tightening.

*Macrons haven’t been used when quoting Tainui, who choose not to use them.

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