Populist Poser Fools Nobody

It was an enjoyable visit to Te Tii Marae today – in contrast to media reports of “tense” standoffs and reporters’ fits of pique, those of us invited into the home of the hapu who had hosted the hui of those first Maori signatories, were warmly welcomed, enjoyed the very special ambience that only this very special wharenui can offer and as is customary, were welcomed to respond to the pōwhiri if we chose. 

In such a convivial setting, and with the harmonies of the numerous waiata soaring above the assembled group of hapu and politicians, it would not be possible to be touched by a very deep feeling of connection to those who first graced this site and then trudged up the hill to sign Tiriti O Waitangi in Busby’s house.

What was almost missing this year – and it was a blessing – was the posturing at the marae gates from those who in the past have revelled in the limelight the media have provided. Without the stage to amplify their antics to a national audience the occasion almost passed as it should. Of course the national impression of Te Tii Marae being the venue for nothing but trouble, derives primarily these days from what happens at the gates to the marae and outside rather than inside the wharenui.

By locking the media outside the gates to their home this year, the hosts were keen to see if that was an effective way to disarm the posers that over recent years have given the marae such a bad name and brought shame on this celebration. That so many politicians – both Maori and Tau Iwi – have been discouraged from attending this commemoration is not good for anyone. The Trust’s strategy, cobbled together in characteristic Maori fashion – often seen as chaotic by those of us watching from the outside – worked.

Without the media providing the stage, there simply wasn’t the opportunity to steal the limelight and send all the wrong messages about this important and historic powhiri from the original hosts of the event that saw our country’s founding document born.

Cringingly, there was one unsurprising exception. At first I thought it was Destiny Church march closing in on the marae gates, but then like a scene from Men in Black, and in front of his clutch of dark-suited, sunglassed MPs swaggering in to create his own stage between the Press cameras and the marae gate, Winston Peters materialised. On cue Mr Peters set about manufacturing a “scene”, an “event” to feed the story-starved scribes.

He “demanded” that the press accompany him on to the marae, and when politely refused, turned to the cameras to create a story around his “indignation”. The drama was enhanced by a marae official politely asking Winston to relocate. Chances of that? You guessed it – just more grist to his posing and pouting to camera.

What a farce – Peters huffing and puffing purely in an attention grab, the Press – with their noses already out of joint – sycophantically lapping it up and creating something out of nothing. So passes another year for the public’s impression of Te Tii Marae to be further poisoned.

The fact that Peters was welcome into the home of this hapu but lacked the grace to accept or turn down the offer respectfully, preferring to use the occasion to manufacture his own reality show, is just the latest display of this fellow’s substance. Neither did he turn up at the political forum at the marae – apparently because there were no Press there to amplify his personage – preferring instead to call the gathered public there a “mob”.

The methods of populist politicians are as transparent as those in any child’s game. And it’s about time the gullible public – and especially the serious Press, picked up on the script.

Here’s the standard recipe populists deploy. Find a grievance common to many (the annual antics at Te Tii marae), find someone to blame for it (the marae trust board), make up a good story to tell and then mix it all together. Tell the wounded (the Press) you know how they feel,  but that you’ve found the bad guys. Label and caricature them (the Trust) - as vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers. Then paint yourself as the savior, defender of the aggrieved (this year not just the national audience but the Press as well). Capture the nation’s imagination. Easy.

It’s irresistable to populists because of the simplicity of the blame game. Along with the narcotic of conspiracy theories it allows your audience to forget about policies and plans, and instead become enraptured by your tale – a tale that starts with anger and ends in vengeance; a vengeance they can participate in. That’s the toxic politics of of the populist in a nutshell.

Should the Prime Minister attend Te Tii Marae? Of course not. So long as posers use that setting to play up for the all-too-willing cameras and can be guaranteed it’s their behaviour that is recorded as the ‘highlight’ of the event, then it’s inappropriate for the PM to attend. That is the challenge the marae trust board are trying to deal with. By removing the stage the Press creates, it would have worked this year if not for Peters.

Meanwhile at the powhiri itself, 177 years on from the signing, we were reminded by the speakers, that the talking between the signatories continues and always will as these two societies keep working on all the issues around the sharing of this land. This is what Waitangi Day is about – not the trashy antics of excrement throwers, dildo biffers or puffed up political posers manufacturing populist events.

I wish Te Tii Marae’s Trust Board all the best as it tries to restore the dignity that this occasion deserves.

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