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When traditions prevent common sense

February 15, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, following an unseemly bout of infantile intolerance over the use of te reo Maori at a Grey Power meeting, I asked in this column if we had become a little too sensitive about the differences between Maori and non-Maori social and cultural norms.

It had been suggested, in a Grey Power newsletter, that Opotiki District councillor Louis Rapihana had insulted those at the meeting who did not understand what he said in a Maori karakia or prayer to open the meeting. The two parties to the dispute eventually agreed to have a polite discussion and settle their differences. 

Such petty, and largely artificial, disputes only serve to exaggerate the differences between different ethnic groups. I also suggested such misunderstandings could be avoided if more people developed at least an understanding of spoken Maori. It is not all that difficult. 

Then, on Waitangi Day we saw a similar example of intolerance when the leader of the parliamentary Opposition, Judith Collins, was refused the opportunity to speak to the gathering at Waitangi. The host Iwi, Nga Puhi, cited their tikanga Nga Puhi, or correct conduct, which prohibits women from speaking on the open marae. That is a privilege only available to men. In a strange contradiction however they have “allowed” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to speak on the open marae since 2018, so tikanga Nga Puhi is at least discretionary.

In 1998 Prime Minister of the time Helen Clarke was given the microphone to speak but was shouted down and reduced to tears by Nga Puhi woman of mana Titewhai Harawira. Her objection was that Prime Minister Clarke, as a woman, was allowed to speak while Maori woman were not allowed to.  

Not all iwi are as strict as Nga Puhi in the observance of this protocol and I have seen a number of women of mana speak on the open marae among the Ngati Porou and a number of Tainui iwi.

Judith Collins, as the second most important politician in the country in her role as leader of the opposition, is a woman of mana in anyone’s estimation. To invite her to a marae and refuse her the opportunity speak, simply because she is a woman, could be seen as an affront to tikanga Pakeha. It flies in the face of strenuous efforts by many Maori and non-Maori women to break down the social and political barriers based on gender.  

Some have attempted to justify the Nga Puhi decision by claiming tikanga Nga Puhi must take precedence over other social norms. In effect, when in Rome do as the Romans do.

Judith Collins had three options at Waitangi. She could have, and perhaps should have, stood and taken the microphone, addressed the gathering and defied anyone to sit her down. She most certainly has the courage to do that. Secondly, she could have simply walked off the marae and never returned and many would have supported her in that action.

The third option was to abide by the Nga Puhi decision and diplomatically “do as the Romans do” which is what she did. 

Then this week we saw another challenge to established protocol. This time it was Parliamentary rules being challenged. Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi was ordered from the House by Speaker Trevor Mallard when he sought to challenge the Speaker’s ruling that men must wear “business attire” including a tie. Waititi was wearing a black cowboy hat and a tiki in place of a tie, which he claimed was Maori business attire.

Mallard made it clear at the start of the session that he personally supported a change to the rules around the wearing of ties which he said was outdated. However, after consulting other MPs, the majority wanted to retain the requirement. He said he would therefore not allow Waititi speak or formally recognise him because he was not wearing a tie.

During question time Waititi tried to ask a question but Speaker Mallard refused to allow him to speak. When Waititi attempted to raise a point of order on the matter Mallard ordered him out of the Chamber. Common sense prevailed and Mallard later relented and allowed Waititi back into the chamber and allowed him to ask his question. The next day the rule requiring ties was properly thrown out.  

The cultural differences between men and women, Pakeha and Maori belong in the history books. Our two leading politicians are woman of considerable mana and everyone needs to recognise that fact. The change to Parliamentary rules was long overdue and Nga Puhi need to do the same if they want leading parliamentarians at Waitangi in the future. 

It is far more important to hear our politicians, regardless of gender, or worry about what they might be wearing. 

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