Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s baby news was one of the main talking points at Rātana on a day focused on new opportunities and lacking the tension of recent visits. Sam Sachdeva reports.
Rātana’s annual celebrations each January bring with them some givens: colourfully-clad brass bands, people making a beeline for a variety of cold treats, and politicians bearing straw hats and their messaging for the start of the political year.
This November marks the 100th anniversary of the Rātana movement, which began when faith healer and prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Rātana received a divine revelation asking him to unite the Māori people behind Jehovah.
In recent years, the political pilgrimages to the settlement for Rātana’s birthday celebrations have brought with them a charged atmosphere and an array of barbs.
Last year, that took the form of verbal sparring between Gareth Morgan and Winston Peters as the election loomed; in 2016, it was the impending signature of the TPP trade deal which spurred protests and a fiery defence from then-Prime Minister John Key.
There appeared to be a more celebratory tone this year, perhaps understandably given the historic ties between Labour and Rātana (forged after Michael Joseph Savage visited in 1936) and the sense of new beginnings following September’s election and the rise of Jacinda Ardern.
Labour MPs were brought onto the pa with coalition partners the Greens and New Zealand First, a sign of unity as the news of the day – a successful conclusion to CPTPP negotiations – threatened to underline their differing views.
An unusual gift
Welcoming the Government, Rātana committee rangatira Andre Mason made a point to thank former Labour leader Andrew Little for “having the wisdom and vision” to stand down and let Ardern take charge.
Predictably, it wasn’t long until the first mention of Ardern’s baby to be, with Mason offering a gift in the shape of a name suggestion – “not the first name, we’ll take the second name”.
The suggestion? Waru, meaning eight – a significant number for Rātana given November 8 was the date of their prophet's vision.
Yet the cheer was mixed with the warning that Māori would hold the new Government to account, ensuring it adhered to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Greens leader James Shaw was quick to pick up on Mason’s call, saying ministers saw their roles as “not just a great honour .. .but a great responsibiity” in terms of upholding Te Tiriti.
“Thank you for the challenge you keep laying down in front of us: we hear that challenge, and we accept that challenge.”
Up next was NZ First MP Shane Jones, who received appreciative whistles as he sauntered up to the microphone and theatrically tapped it before launching into a speech.
Mixing te reo and English, Jones dispensed a typically broad array of wisecracks: he said Finance Minister Grant Robertson had guarded against an overly long speech by threatening to cut the billion-dollar regional development fund, while a drone hovering over the pa grounds also caught his attention as he warned against bringing it to Waitangi.
“I have no doubt it’ll be mistaken as a kereru, shot and consumed.”
Peters came next, making a predictable dig at “the cat man” Morgan.
But it was Ardern most were there to see, and it was Ardern they got, as she was escorted to the mahau (porch of the meeting house) to sit with church elders – a significant gesture.
She joked that she would have to extend the space on her baby’s birth certificate, given the number of suggestions to date, but was quick to pledge a close relationship with the people of Rātana and Māori.
"In fact, I would like to liken the kind of relationship, partnership we'd like to have as the way I speak te reo: slowly. But I listen and understand, and that, I think, will be key."
Urging them to hold her Government to account while celebrating their progress, Ardern said she had learned from the support that Māori had provided to many in the Kaikoura earthquake and other situations.
“Where there was need, Māori opened the doors and responded to the need, and that is the kind of government we want to be.”
English faces the music
For National leader Bill English and his caucus, it was a vastly different experience from their time in government.
Barely a dozen MPs made the trip up to Rātana for the afternoon, with the rows of yellow seats conspicuously empty during the powhiri.
Welccoming English and his team, Kingitanga spokesman Rahui Papa gave him credit for returning following the election loss, and said National would still have a role to play in advancing the interests of Māori while in opposition.
“Some people with lesser mettle might have hidden away, but you returned to face the music.”
To his credit, English didn’t shy away from his changed circumstances in a self-deprecating speech preceded by about three minutes of halting but earnest te reo.
“Last time I was here, Piri, the secretary, made sure to invite me back – I’m not sure he knew that I’d be less important this time.”
“I say te reo Māori is ingrained in the very earth of this nation, and I say that it belongs to all New Zealanders."
Paying tribute to the strength and steadfastness of the Rātana Church, English stayed positive until deviating to express concern about a “step back” for Māori under the new government.
“With Labour there's a lot of historical ties, there's a lot of internal iwi, and personal and family connections and politics and it will just be harder to get things done, and over the next couple of years that will be quite a test for the new government.”
English himself did not avoid criticism, with Papa taking issue with his comments describing te reo as “someone else’s language”.
“I say te reo Māori is ingrained in the very earth of this nation, and I say that it belongs to all New Zealanders,” Papa said.
"It doesn't just belong to Māori, it belongs to everybody, and everybody should recognise it and share in the bounty of te reo Māori.”
Overall though, the sunny day appeared full of hope more than anger – a mood that Ardern will be hoping accompanies her to Waitangi next month.