New Zealand: Thousands rally in support of Māori rights

Thousands of people have taken part in protests across New Zealand, angry at what they say is the government’s dismantling of Māori rights.

Thursday’s demonstrations came as the centre-right coalition government unveiled its first budget, announcing tax cuts and outlining savings in areas including housing and conservation.

The finance minister dismissed criticism that funding had been cut to programmes benefiting Māori, saying the new initiatives would benefit all New Zealanders.

The government has faced various allegations of seeking to dilute the agency of indigenous people in New Zealand since it took power in October.

The protests – known as hikoi – were held in cities including the capital Wellington, Auckland, Tauranga and Christchurch. Some took place in car convoys on motorways, disrupting traffic.

Some people waved the red, white and black Māori flag, which has become a symbol of Māori independence.

“We are here to have a voice and back those who are collectively working to make things right, not just for us Māori but for the people of New Zealand,” one protester, Christina Taurua, told AFP news agency outside the parliament buildings in Wellington.

Demonstrators voiced concern that political policies and initiatives they had fought hard for, including the disbanding of a new entity aimed at improving Māori health services, were being dismantled too quickly.

“All of a sudden they just come along with the click of a finger and change some of these laws,” Ethan Smith told Radio New Zealand in Auckland.

“We want them to have a sit-down with us… so we can thrash out these issues and come to a better resolution for everybody.”

This is the second such protest to take place since the new government took power but these demonstrations attracted many more people.

Later on Thursday, the Māori Party, one of the six parties represented in New Zealand’s parliament, issued a Declaration of Political Independence and said it would move to set up a separate parliament for Māori people.

This, they said, would be part of efforts to transform New Zealand into a nation that respected the sovereignty of Indigenous people “and creates a safe home for all peoples”.

Those who consider themselves ethnically Māori make up roughly 17% of the population, according to Statistics New Zealand figures.

The Māori population remains disadvantaged compared with the general population when assessed through markers such as health outcomes, household income, education levels and incarceration and mortality rates. There remains a seven-year gap in life expectancy.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters – the leader of one of the three coalition parties – criticised the Māori Party for protesting outside parliament rather than turning up to hear the budget.

He also pointed out what he said was the “irony and hypocrisy” of the Māori Party, whose president in 2005 described the rise of the party as “unfortunate and frustrating” and those who supported it as “tribal fundamentalists”.

The new governing coalition’s leaders previously said they did not wish to divide the country along race.

Minister of Finance Nicola Willis, meanwhile, rejected allegations that the new budget neglected Māori development.

“This is a budget that delivers for Māori because when a New Zealander turns up to an emergency room or a school, they don’t turn up thinking about their ethnicity,” she said.

Former Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, the leader of the Labour Party – the country’s biggest opposition party, disagreed – saying the budget delivered little in terms of health and education.

“In New Zealand we work together for the good of the many – not the few,” the opposition politician said. “This budget does not deliver in that spirit.”

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