Thousands of Māori protesters took to the streets across New Zealand on Tuesday morning, objecting to policies of the new government that Māori say will unravel decades of indigenous progress.
Protesters blocked traffic on key roads and lined streets in towns and cities while calling for the coalition to scrap plans to review the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s 180-year-old founding document which was signed between the Crown and Māori leaders.
The new government recently announced it would dial back the use of Māori language in government organisations, and scrap anti-smoking legislation and the Māori Health Authority at a time when health issues, including lung cancer, disproportionately impact Māori.
The protests were organised by Te Pāti Māori, a Māori political party that expanded its seats in parliament from two to six in the October elections. The day also marks the opening of New Zealand’s 54th government.
“We will not accept being second-rate citizens and being relegated backwards by this government,” Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer told the Guardian after a protest in Wellington where close to a thousand people marched on Parliament House.
“Our people are extremely concerned with this government, with repealing this kaupapa [policy] that has benefited Māori,” she added, calling the Treaty of Waitangi the basis for past policies that have benefited Māori.
During the rush hour commute in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, protesters gathered at key freeway entry points waving Māori flags and carrying signs, according to local media reports. Many of the protesters then got in cars and formed a procession into the city’s centre. Protesters also turned out in dozens of smaller centres such as Rotorua, where 400 protesters marched down the town’s main street.
“All the gains we’ve had to beg for are about to be turned back 50 years and we will be forced to try again, said Melody Te Patu Wilkie, 52 who organised the protests in the west coast town of New Plymouth. She expected 40 protesters to come. Instead, about 400 showed up.
“I’m doing this for my mokopuna [grandchildren] who are too young to have a voice for themselves,” said Te Patu Wilkie, a grandmother of six.
The new government, a coalition of National, Act and New Zealand First parties, have said they will review the Treaty of Waitangi and allow parliament to debate whether the nation should hold a referendum on co-governance with Māori.
A referendum on co-governance was a key policy of Act, a libertarian party, now one of the three parties in the ruling coalition. However, during the election campaign New Zealand’s now-prime minister and leader of the conservative National party, Christopher Luxon said a referendum on the co-governance would be “divisive and unhelpful.”
Act leader David Seymour called the protests a “sad day” for New Zealand’s democracy. He said in a statement that a referendum was “needed to ensure a healthy debate on whether our future lies with co-government and different rights based on ancestry, or whether we want to be a modern, multi-ethnic liberal democracy where every New Zealander has the same rights.”
Te Pāti Māori took its protest inside parliament as MPs individually came forward to swear allegiance to King Charles III, New Zealand’s head of state. In a break from protocol, all six Te Pāti Māori MPs first swore their allegiance to their grandchildren under the Treaty of Waitangi before walking forward to pledge their allegiance to King Charles.
MPs are legally required to pledge allegiance to New Zealand’s head of state before performing their roles as representatives in parliament. At the start of New Zealand’s last government in 2020, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi objected to the absence of the Treaty of Waitangi in the oath.