Waitangi Day events became a focus for protests about sovereignty in the 1990s. Māori sovereignty – defined over the years in various ways as mana motuhake, autonomy, self-determination or self-regulation – has been one of the most enduring Māori understandings of the Treaty's second article (in which te tino rangatiratanga was not ceded but guaranteed).
New Zealand marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1990. The 1990 Commission, in charge of co-ordinating and promoting activities for the sesquicentennial year, was convinced that the Māori–Pakehā partnership concept had to be broadened to embrace the many cultures of the nation. The Treaty and Waitangi Day had their place, but they were not the only factors in the national identity equation.
Nevertheless, 6 February had to be handled well. The Waitangi event, which the Queen attended, was a gala occasion, with the Aotearoa Māori Arts Festival and 20 newly built waka drawing thousands of spectators. The commemoration, which included a re-enactment of the Treaty signing, went off with few hitches.
Protesters were not absent, but it was Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa Whakahuihui Vercoe who made the most telling public statement. His speech signalled that no matter what the programme, the day was bound to produce tensions.
The pattern of attendance by dignitaries, speeches and Māori and navy involvement at Waitangi resumed after 1990. There was no clear vision of what the day would mean were it ever to be a day for the nation as a whole; it often proved difficult to co-ordinate the various players in the event.
The Waitangi National Trust Board saw the day as the one time in the year when New Zealanders could be one people. Foreign Affairs' role related to the presence of the diplomatic corps, which by convention, paid its respects to the head of state on the national day. For northern Māori it was their mana whenua that was at stake. The navy felt that it was there by right and was obliged to support the governor-general. Participants looked forward to a pleasant social event, enhanced by a stay at the nearby Waitangi hotel or another resort.
The formal Waitangi Day programme in 1991 and 1992 was intended to reflect the Māori–Pākehā partnership of tangata whenua (people of the land) and tangata tiriti (people of the Treaty), the latter being a concept that aims to give non-Māori partners a feeling that they have a right to call New Zealand their tūrangawaewae (a place to stand).
As the 1993 commemoration approached, the National government's handling of Treaty issues was creating divisions of opinion among both Pākehā and Māori. At Waitangi in 1993 there was a hardening of attitudes among both elders and activists. Embarrassed by events that year, Cabinet set up a ministerial working group to review options. It restricted its deliberations to events at Waitangi, which would be attended by Prince Charles in 1994, and apparently did not consider other possibilities.
This focus on Waitangi led to the 1994 programme being planned with care by both the Crown and Tai Tokerau (northern Māori). A working group embraced representatives of all groups involved, including protest groups. The Crown–Māori partnership was recognised by the co-chairing of the organisation by Deputy Prime Minister Don McKinnon and northern representative Pita Parāone.
New features were a forum on the marae at which government ministers and Māori exchanged views on Treaty issues, and a sports/cultural festival on the Treaty House grounds. The review had created new problems: more participants in the organisation, more agendas and a potentially explosive forum. The revamped programme was moderately successful, protest was fairly low-key, and a similar programme was scheduled for 1995.
The months leading up to 6 February 1995 were marked by increasing tensions on Treaty issues, even before the government released, in December 1994, its long-awaited new proposals for the settlement of Treaty claims. These brought a negative response from all levels of the Māori community and placed the events at Waitangi in jeopardy. Protest was expected, but its nature and extent caught many people off guard.
Events on Te Tii marae led to the cancellation of the forum, and with protest flags hoisted on the Treaty House grounds and public security uncertain, the formal ceremonies were cancelled. Within days Prime Minister Jim Bolger used his annual state of the nation address to comment on race relations: 'What happened at Waitangi is not the universal face of Maoridom and must not be seen as such,' he said. 'Equally, what happened at Waitangi means there can be no going back to commemorate and celebrate Waitangi as it was. That is over.' The public was invited to comment and propose alternatives, but in the end the government, like Labour in the 1980s, decided on a strategic repositioning of events.
From 1996 to 1998 the official ceremonies were held at Government House, Wellington, while a function at Waitangi had a limited government presence. In 1998 Prime Minister Jenny Shipley attended the dawn ceremony at Waitangi before returning to Wellington for the official commemorations. In that year opposition leader Helen Clark was challenged about her right as a woman to speak on Te Tii marae. Despite this incident there were few protests and no arrests. In 1999 the Crown returned to Waitangi and both the prime minister and the governor-general attended the official commemorations. The day was once more a largely peaceful affair, though some protesters labelled the programme a sham.