Politics

Waitangi trip a triumph, but challenges lie ahead

Sam Sachdeva was at Waitangi during Jacinda Ardern's historic visit. He shares his thoughts on what the trip means for her, and the challenges that lie in wait.

Comment: As a first-time visitor to Waitangi, it was difficult to fully grasp the significance of Jacinda Ardern’s visit.

Beforehand, much was made of the Prime Minister’s decision to spend five days in Te Tai Tokerau - including by Ardern herself.

But what did it really mean that she received raucous applause from the crowd at the end of the dawn service, that those present at many Waitangis past spoke of a special feeling in the air, that hundreds thronged to claim a sausage or piece of bacon from her government?

The annual commemorations have become inextricably linked to protest and political battles in the eyes of many New Zealanders, but Ardern’s timing meant she was always likely to walk into a less hostile environment.

The decision to switch the official pōwhiri from Te Tii Marae was made well before she took the nation’s top job, while her fledgling government has not yet had enough time in office to fall short of expectations.

That being said, it is clear that for Ardern the visit was an unmitigated triumph, one which may have left Bill English wishing he was nearby rather than at the opposite end of the country in Bluff.

Ardern’s speech at the Waitangi pōwhiri - the first address by a female prime minister - would have been remembered regardless of its content, but it contained a lyricism that feels all too rare in New Zealand politics.

Everything within her control was executed perfectly, and everything left to chance fell her way - even the weather, with bright blue skies at the times she needed them the most.

There is a temptation in some corners to paint Ardern as a lightweight, all smiles and no substance.

Leaving aside the fact much the same was said about John Key, that charge simply does not tally with the woman who made the most of her chance to be part of history.

Ardern’s speech at the Waitangi pōwhiri - the first address by a female prime minister - would have been remembered regardless of its content, but it contained a lyricism that feels all too rare in New Zealand politics.

The personal and the political seamlessly wove together, Ardern speaking about her hope that her child would understand the history of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the urgent need to close the distance between Māori and Pakeha in Aotearoa.

It was not what she said that struck home as much as how she said it, a sense that each word had been carefully considered.

Ardern herself acknowledged that talk is not enough, and it is action that her government will be judged on. But as her wise deputy Winston Peters has been known to say, words do mean things, and hers seemed to strike home with Ngapuhi and other iwi.

Sunrise at Waitangi - is there a new dawn for Crown-Māori relations? Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

It helped that those words were backed up by what actions were at her disposal.

Gone was the cloistered, invite-only Copthorne breakfast favoured by prime ministers past. In its place, an open-air, free-for-all barbecue with MPs, ministers and Ardern herself picking up the tongs to dispense the food to the masses.

As symbolism goes, it was not subtle. Ardern herself said: “The reason we are here is because we didn't want walls to partition off who was able to join us this morning.”

But nuance is an unnecessary tool for the Prime Minister’s team, at least compared to pictures of politicians serving the public.

The pictures of Ardern playing with babies on marae, and receiving the gift of wahakura from a local weaver, also spoke to the “dynamite” combination of a young leader and young country that Ngāpuhi leader Sonny Tau referenced.

It cannot be easy knowing there is a sense of public ownership in your unborn child, evidenced by the numerous (albeit well-meaning) suggestions of baby names.

If Ardern is feeling pressure at a personal level, she is disguising it well so far - although she acknowledged pressure of a different kind when it comes to meeting the expectations of Māori.

Ardern has earned the right to simply listen, better understand the issues and ask for solutions, but come her next Waitangi visit there will be a higher standard for her to meet.

Ardern herself urged those at Waitangi to hold her to account: “One day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here, and only you can tell me when I have done that.”

If there is one frustration, it has been her tendency to speak in generalities: about the desire to close the gap, without exactly how that will be done, and about the many specific lessons she took from this trip, but not what any of them were.

Ardern has earned the right to simply listen, better understand the issues and ask for solutions, but come her next Waitangi visit there will be a higher standard for her to meet.

That is the challenge of early success: it may prove hard to live up to, and history does not provide much cause for optimism when it comes to Crown-Māori relations.

But if the effort put into this visit is any guide, it is a challenge that Ardern will strive to meet.

On a personal note: if you have not visited Waitangi before, please consider it.

The popularly held images of politicians being pelted with objects do not hold up to the genuine friendliness and manaakitanga that is on display for everyone to see.

There is no guarantee that Waitangi will be protest-free, nor should there be: as Ardern herself said, it would be odd were we not as open with each other as we are the rest of the year.

But the beauty of the starry skies, of birdsong slowly growing with the light on the horizon, of past, present and future coming together, feels unique to the birthplace of our nation.

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