Thousands of Maori protesters took to the streets across New Zealand on Tuesday morning, opposing the new government’s policies that Maori say will undo decades of indigenous progress.
Protesters blocked traffic on key roads and lined streets in towns while calling on the coalition to abandon plans to revise the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s 180-year-old founding document signed between the Crown and rulers Maori.
The new government recently announced it would reduce the use of the Māori language in government organizations and scrap anti-smoking legislation and the Māori Health Authority at a time of health concerns including lung cancer , disproportionately affect Māori.
The protests were organized by Te Pāti Māori, a Māori political party which increased its number of seats in Parliament from two to six in the October election. This day also marks the opening of New Zealand’s 54th government.
“We will not accept being second-class citizens and being pushed back by this government,” Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, co-leader of Te Pāti Māori, told the Guardian after a protest in Wellington where nearly a thousand people marched on Parliament.
“Our people are extremely concerned about this government wanting to repeal this kaupapa (policy) that has benefited Māori,” she added, calling the Treaty of Waitangi the basis for past policies that have benefited Māori.
During rush hour in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, protesters gathered at major highway entry points waving Maori flags and signs, according to local media. Many demonstrators then got into cars and formed a procession to the city center. Protesters also gathered in dozens of smaller centers, such as Rotorua, where 400 demonstrators marched down the city’s main street.
“All the gains we had to beg for are about to be reversed 50 years ago and we will be forced to try again,” said Melody Te Patu Wilkie, 52, who organized the protests in New Plymouth, on the West Coast. She expected 40 protesters to come. Instead, about 400 people showed up.
“I am doing this for my mokopuna (grandchildren) who are too young to be able to express themselves,” said Te Patu Wilkie, a grandmother of six.
The new government, a coalition of National, Act and New Zealand First parties, said it would review the Treaty of Waitangi and allow Parliament to debate whether the nation should hold a referendum on co-governance with the Maoris.
A referendum on co-governance was a key policy of Act, a libertarian party, now one of three parties in the ruling coalition. However, during the election campaign, current New Zealand Prime Minister and leader of the conservative National Party, Christopher Luxon, said a referendum on co-governance would be “divisive and unnecessary”.
Act leader David Seymour called the protests a “sad day” for New Zealand democracy. He said in a statement that a referendum was “necessary to ensure a healthy debate about whether our future lies in co-government and different rights based on descent, or whether we want to be a liberal democracy modern and multi-ethnic where every New Zealander has the same rights.
Te Pāti Māori protested inside Parliament as individual MPs came forward to pledge allegiance to King Charles III, New Zealand’s head of state. In a break with protocol, the six Te Pāti Māori MPs first pledged allegiance to their grandchildren under the Treaty of Waitangi before pledging allegiance to King Charles.
MPs are legally required to swear allegiance to the New Zealand head of state before exercising their duties 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.