It has been reported that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will not host her centrepiece Waitangi Day breakfast next year.
According to reports by the Guardian and Australian Associated Press, the decision was due to increased fears for Ardern’s safety at the Upper Treaty Grounds.
Although the Waitangi National Trust announcement has not been confirmed by the Beehive, it does raise several important issues relating to the coming election year.
Threats of violence and nastiness against politicians
Government politicians have been reporting increased hostility, harassment, and threats of violence this year. And anyone who closely watches politics will be aware of rising levels of toxicity and nastiness in political debate. Of course, some of it comes from the politicians themselves.
One of the most notable threats of violence in 2022 came when Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson needed the Diplomatic Protection Service to help him board a plane in Whangarei after protesters, apparently opposed to the closure of the Marsden Point oil refinery, chased him with lamingtons.
Act Party leader, David Seymour, responded: “I would have thought that Grant Robertson would be a much bigger threat to lamingtons than lamingtons would be a threat to Grant Robertson”. This was Massey University’s quote of the year this week.
Of course, much more serious threats to safety occurred right outside the Beehive when the Covid anti-mandate protesters occupied the Parliamentary lawn for three weeks. Since then, hostilities have dissipated and Ardern herself recently said tensions have reduced since the Covid mandates have been dismantled.
Last week the anti-vax movement attempted to hold a large demonstration on Parliament grounds again, but despite lots of publicity the protest only managed to attract 20 people at its height. So, despite fears of disinformation and hate fuelling a growing movement of conspiracy theorists, this has largely turned out to be more of a bogeyman.
But there are still serious worries for next year’s election campaign. At last month’s Labour Party conference there was concern expressed about whether candidates would be exposed to increased threats on the campaign, including “insidious trolling”. Labour says it is reconsidering whether to do public campaigning such as walkabouts in shopping malls.
Certainly, being openly heckled in public, and especially at Waitangi, would be terrible PR for the Prime Minister and in great contrast to the Jacindamania in the more positive election years of 2017 and 2020.
It’s possible rising threats to politicians, and any need to cancel the Waitangi barbecue, could be leveraged by Labour in its attempt to be re-elected. One of the party’s themes for next year will be the need to stick with a “safe pair of hands” during dangerous and difficult times.
By emphasising the economic risks together with the dangers of far-right radicals, conspiracy theories and rising disinformation, the Government might be able to convince people to vote for the “devil you know” rather than risking a change of government. Labour can therefore be able to position itself not as a “Government of Transformation” but more as the conservative option at a time of great uncertainty.
Increased debates about public safety
Politicians will need to be very careful in how they characterise themselves as victims of threats of violence or aggression at a time when there are heightened concerns about violent crime in the community. The increased number of violent attacks on dairies and ram raids on shops is starting to resonate widely.
There are many appeals for the Government to do more about violent crime, with widespread concern that they are not taking the problem seriously. Therefore, politicians will need to think twice about crying “poor me” when dairy workers are being shot or having their fingers cut off by criminals, as seen in the weekend.
More generally, when there is increased public pain caused by economic recession and a cost of living crisis, politicians looking for sympathy might not be received well.
Rotorua-based Labour MP Tamati Coffey went public earlier in the year about his Labour-branded car being scratched, forcing him to remove the party branding. But much of the public debate that followed was about his lack of leadership in the Rotorua housing crisis and emergency motel scandal.
So, how much sympathy the public will have for politicians in the firing line is yet to be seen. There might be some sense that the Beehive-ensconced politicians are a being a bit rich when they occasionally get a dose of the real world.
There might also be cynicism that politicians complaining about their safety are seeking the sympathy vote rather than soberly dealing with a real issue. In October, for example, National leader Christopher Luxon said his party was happy to help establish a cross-party group to work out how improve politician safety, but pointed out that “nobody has raised any issues with National, including the Green Party or the Labour Party, who seem to be more keen on raising the issue through media”.
Labour’s changing orientation to te ao Māori
The reported decision to cancel the Prime Minister’s Waitangi barbecue raises questions about Labour’s whole orientation to the traditional Waitangi celebrations in 2023. It is surprising that this much celebrated breakfast event even needs to be cancelled, as it is probably the most secure part of the Waitangi celebrations – it takes place in a controlled area of the Treaty Grounds, encircled by security fences. The ability of the Diplomatic Protection Service to ensure safety at the event would not normally be questioned.
Of course, there is a history of aggravation and violence towards politicians at Waitangi. Don Brash got hit by mud thrown at him in 2004, Prime Minister John Key was assaulted in 2009, and Steven Joyce got a rubber dildo thrown at him in 2016. But this was all at the Te Tii Marae on the lower grounds of Waitangi – quite a different area to the Treaty Grounds, where the barbecue takes place.
Although there are no signs that the Prime Minister and Government are abandoning the Waitangi events entirely, the reported cancellation of the barbecue could simply suggest that Labour is wanting to distance itself from a strong association with te ao Māori in election year.
At the moment the Labour Government is facing a significant battle to turn around their drop in popularity and a very difficult re-election campaign. Labour knows that it needs to jettison unpopular policies and associations – and there seems to be a growing recognition in the party that the dominance of the Māori caucus and aspirations of the co-governance agenda has harmed their reputation at a time when the Government has failed to deliver on core issues.
Co-governance now seems to be on hold for election year, as signalled this month by Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson. The reality is that all of Labour’s focus groups and polling will be telling them that a large part of the public is suspicious of Labour’s agenda in terms of co-governance and the Treaty.
Therefore, it’s possible that issues of ethnicity, the Treaty, and Labour’s orientation to te ao Māori are exactly where Labour will seek a major recalibration in 2023. If this is the case, then they will be doing all that they can not to start the political year with a strong association with first, the Ratana Church celebrations in January, and then with Waitangi in February.
Labour is also going to have to deal with some push back on this from not just their own Māori caucus, but also Māori leaders and the NGO sector. For example, this week over 60 NGOs signed an open letter calling for Labour to “pick up the pace” on co-governance instead of burying the agenda. Similar pro-Treaty and co-governance protests against the Government could easily occur at Waitangi if Labour makes itself and Ardern an easy target. It’s possibly in this context of Labour “abandoning Māori” in 2023, that the Prime Minister’s Waitangi BBQ needed to be cancelled.
But it’s high stakes. Labour’s hold on some of the Māori electorates could be under threat. And at Waitangi, don’t be surprised if Te Pati Māori, or even David Seymour, turn up with bread and sausages to feed the masses in a symbolic stunt to illustrate that Labour is no longer delivering.
Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.