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Scoop Opinion: Titewhai Harawira Educates A Nation

Scoop's Alastair Thompson discusses the ongoing debate over Maori Activist Titewhai Harawira's stand against Prime Minister Helen Clark speaking out of turn on the Waitangi Marae and concludes that some good is coming of all the hot air .

First to recap. The Marae at Waitangi - where New Zealand's founding document the Treaty of Waitangi was signed- would like to host the new Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark for the celebrations of the anniversary of the signing on February 6th.

In the past it has been traditional for Prime Ministers to attend state celebrations at Waitangi though over the past decade controversy has surrounded nearly every celebration day, and on several occasions the government has not turned up.

In 1998 then PM Jenny Shipley turned up - rather unexpectedly - at an early morning ceremony at Waitangi and was allowed to speak.

Later in the day, then Labour Leader Helen Clark attended another ceremony and tried to speak before she was interrupted by Harawira and told that protocol forbade her to speak, and further that she would not be allowed to speak before Maori women had the right to speak. Clark was reduced to tears.

In 1999 Shipley returned to Waitangi and to everybodies surprise was photographed walking conspicuously arm in arm with Harawira.

This year Titewhai is sticking to her guns on the speaking issue and has made sure women's speaking rights at Waitangi are firmly back in the public eye. Attempts to mediate a way through the debate by Maori Affairs Minister Dover Samuel's have proved fruitless so far.

A formal hui has been held to discuss the issue and while the Waitangi Marae Committee is willing to make an exception to protocol to allow the Prime Minister to speak, they have said that they cannot guarantee that she will not again be interrupted by Titewhai - nor are they willing to serve a trespass order against the feisty Harawira.

All this news has been reported with great enthusiasm and in minute detail over the past fortnight, with the PM seemingly remaining as removed from the argument as possible.

On the face of it Titewhai - who the public are accustomed to seeing as the villain - appears to be applying a double standard. Her friend Jenny can speak, but Helen, who she doesn't know so well - yet anyway - can't.

However in reality, as the following column endeavours to explain, the debate is a long way from being so simple and easily set aside. And as long as Helen Clark keeps her options open on attendance at Waitangi it appears the debate will go on.

Yesterday morning Helen Clark told Radio New Zealand's Kim Hill that she expected to make a decision on her attendance at Waitangi or not shortly - possibly later that day. Today spokespeople indicate the decision may be another couple of days away at least.

The Prime Minister's position in the debate royale is simple, she will go to Waitangi if she is welcome - but until she can be sure she is welcome she will not commit to doing so.

But while the PM's position is simple and "softly-softly" its effect, in true Taoist fashion, it is proving quite enlightening.

As the debate continues…and continues… for the first time some of the real issues behind the protocol forbidding women speaking on Marae are being discussed in the mainstream media.

Till now the issue of apparently "sexist" Marae protocols has been a popular whipping boy among the biculturally uninformed - "they are still back in the dark ages", critics are fond of saying.

Even more widely it is believed that women cannot speak on the Marae because Maori are clinging to an old patriarchal culture. While this is probably partially true there is a spiritual dimension behind the protocol which deserves exploration and respect too.

Less helpful than the PM's stance was the terminology used by the Maori Affairs Minister when he announced he would try to convince the Waitangi Kaumatua (old people) to allow Clark an exception, in effect saying that they needed to "get with" the 21st century.

This morning roughly a week later the debate is getting thankfully more sophisticated.

Today a group of Northland Maori women invited Helen Clark to attend a hui prceeding the Waitangi commemorations if she is really interested in women's speaking rights under Nga Puhi protocol.

Reading between the lines the spokeswoman for the group appeared to in effect back Titewhai's Harawira's position on the speaking debate.

While this confused the radio interviewer a little, the arguments in favour of this postion would have rung a bell with listeners who had heard Marae Committee spokesman Kingi Taurua's explanations of why Shipley had been allowed to speak and Clark hadn't.

Mr Taurua has on several times explained that Titewhai Harawira was right - Jenny Shipley had been allowed to speak because she did so at the right time - after the Tapu had been lifted. Helen Clark on the other hand had tried to speak at the wrong time which was why she was interrupted.

Further he went on to argue that the prohibition against her speaking before the Tapu was lifted was in the interests of her own protection.

"Protection from what?" The interviewer asked.

"From assault," replied Mr Taurua. At which point listeners no doubt became more confused and wondered who would want to hit the Prime Minister at Waitangi. Titewhai, of course, immediately comes to mind.

More explanation is clearly needed - and here Dover Samuels might like to try again and I am sure would do far better at explaining what is going on here than scoop.

In the meantime Scoop will attempt to fill in the final pieces of this puzzle.

In Maori culture the concepts of "Tapu" and "Noa" have special consequences - mixing tapu and noa without due regard can upset the balance, and bring about the displeasure of the ancestors and gods. Displeasing the ancestors brings misfortune.

Some translate the concepts as tapu=spiritual and noa=ordinary, however this captures only a small part of the meaning. Many people also know that men are considered tapu and women noa and equate the two concepts to mean that Maori believe women are ordinary. Another interpretation would translate noa to mean "of the earthly world" as in "earth mother" and in this context of course the term appears less sexist.

The bottom line is that in Nga Puhi protocol many old people will be very concerned that if Helen Clark as a "noa" women speaks out of order she will upset the gods and misfortune will come to the marae and its people.

This is not sexism. And nor is it a matter for the Human Rights Act as some would argue. Should for example the Human Rights Act be considered to control the prohibition in the Catholic Church on women administering the sacrament?

Thankfully with more than two weeks to W-day the debate over the PMs attendance is already bearing positive fruit and by the time Waitangi Day finally comes around we should be well and truly educated.

© Scoop Media

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