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In his annual Waitangi breakfast address before iwi leaders yesterday, Mr Key said public goodwill about the need for Treaty settlements was critical to the success of the process - but a few ''headline seekers'' could put that at risk by turning the public against them.
Dr Sharples retaliated by saying nobody should be told to stop protesting, and it was the cornerstone of society.
In his State of the Maori Nation address last night, in direct contradiction of Mr Key's comments, Dr Sharples spoke at length about the role protests had in giving Maori greater power.
He said protests throughout history had ensured Maori had influence, and was important ''in opening doors''.
Asked about Mr Key's comments, Dr Sharples said he understood where the prime minister was coming from.
''From his position, it can be sort of a hiccup.''
However, he said the ability to speak out was critical.
''I don't think anyone should be made to stop protesting. It's a legitimate way to say `I'm not happy with something'. And I think that's a cornerstone of our society - to have the freedom to do that.''