Thousands protest Indigenous policies of New Zealand government as lawmakers are sworn in

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Thousands of protesters rallied against the New Zealand government’s Indigenous policies on Tuesday as the Parliament convened for the first time since October elections.

Demonstrations in the capital, Wellington, and in about a dozen other New Zealand cities and towns were organized by the minor Maori Party, which advocates for the rights of Indigenous New Zealanders who are known as Maori.

Protesters demonstrated peacefully outside Parliament against what they described as the “anti-Maori” policies of the newly elected conservative-led coalition government.

Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi said the new policies of Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s administration would take New Zealand “back to the 1800s.”

“Our protest this morning was an activation of our people,” Waititi said.

The National Party-led government promises to review the Treaty of Waitangi and implement potential changes to how that foundation document signed by British colonists and Maori chiefs in 1840 affects modern laws.

The government has also foreshadowed changes to the Maori Health Authority, a statutory agency responsible for ensuring that the New Zealand health system meets Maori needs.

Luxon said his government was “deeply committed to improving outcomes for Maori and non-Maori.”

“Maori have done very well in National-led governments in the past, and they’re going to continue to do well,” Luxon said.

Lawmakers were sworn in on Tuesday after elections on Oct. 14 ousted the center-left Labour Party government that had ruled since 2017.

The Maori Party won six of the 123 seats in the 54th Parliament.

Party lawmaker Takuta Ferris wore a Maori headdress and performed a haka, a traditional dance or challenge accompanied by a chant, as he crossed the chamber to make an affirmation that confirmed his place in the Parliament.

Other Maori Party lawmakers sang traditional Indigenous songs.

Some Green Party lawmakers wore the Arab headdress known as the keffiyeh over their shoulders in a sign of support for Palestinians in the Israel-Hamas war.

Luxon’s National Party won 38% of the vote — the largest proportion of any party. He took almost six weeks after the election to reach a coalition agreement with another two parties: the populist New Zealand First party and the libertarian ACT Party.

ACT Party leader David Seymour described the Maori Party protests as “divisive theatrics” that showed disrespect for the election result.

“New Zealanders elected a government that will treat people equally, regardless of their race,” Seymour said.

“It’s a sad day when a political party is protesting equal rights,” he added.

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