Ardern’s Waitangi sequel a test of relationship

Jacinda Ardern’s inaugural Waitangi visit as Prime Minister was notable for its air of optimism. One year on, what sort of reception might she receive? Sam Sachdeva reports.

Heading to what has traditionally been a tempestuous occasion for prime ministers, Jacinda Ardern’s Waitangi debut in 2018 went about as well as she could have hoped.

With a change of location to a more favourable venue, a baby on the way, and a new government not yet fully tested, the odds were in Ardern’s favour - but she also made her own luck with a powerful speech and some shrewdly planned events (for instance, scrapping the previous government’s invite-only Waitangi Day breakfast for a BBQ open to the public).

According to Māori-Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis, the legacy of Ardern’s visit is still being felt.

“Even halfway through the [last] year you come up north with the Prime Minister and people were still talking about what a great day we had at Waitangi in 2018 ... we want to build on it this year.”

But will the reception be as cheery a year on?

'A bit of murmuring'

While Waitangi Day organising committee chairman Pita Paraone believes Ardern will receive a similar reception this year, he suggests there may be “a bit of murmuring” from Māori over some areas of discontent.

“People will always say that they can do better, and I think the fact that we’ve got a number of Māori members of Cabinet, even outside of Cabinet, there’s an expectation they could be more proactive in promoting things Maori,” Paraone, says.

National’s newly-minted Māori-Crown relations spokesman Nick Smith believes the Government faces a similar challenge from Māori as it does overall after a year “typified by a large amount of promise but very little progress”.

“On many of the issues, whether they’ve been treaty settlements or challenging issues like water, there hasn’t been any real progress. The expectation, which I also heard at Ratana, was, ‘We’ve given you the benefit of the doubt for year one, but for year two the Government’s going to have to start delivering’.”

“We’ve had a year of inquiries, we’ve had a year of investigations ... 2019 for this government must be the year of action.”

Matthew Tukaki, chairman of the National Māori Authority, agrees there will be plenty of expectation from Māori for the Government to deliver on its many promises.

“We’ve had a year of inquiries, we’ve had a year of investigations ... 2019 for this Government must be the year of action.”

Tukaki is complimentary of the work being done by Labour’s Māori caucus, but says they must make sure their voices are being heard within the Government as well as outside it.

“You’ve got all of these people with their shoulders to the wheel, so you run the risk of great electorate MPs who are out there selling the messaging on behalf of the Government, but even our own Māori MPs have got to make sure they’ve got a stronger voice at the Cabinet table as well. That will show promise, that will show a bit of momentum.”

Kelvin Davis says the creation of Te Arawhiti is a chance to build a genuine partnership between the Government and Māori. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Davis acknowledges that sense of responsibility, saying that is why the Government has worked hard to engage with iwi and hapū on their concerns and priorities.

“Everybody, whether you’re a Māori MP or you're not a Māori MP, there’s pressure to deliver for the people who voted you in, so everybody is working very hard to deliver, be that in government or opposition ... to meet the needs of their constituents across the country.”

Many of the issues prioritised by Māori are the same as for the wider population: Paraone mentions mental health and housing, while Tukaki talks about high suicide and unemployment rates.

Up for debate is how to best address those issues for Māori: Ardern’s government has shied away from targeted initiatives, preferring a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach through universalism.

Tukaki says there is value in “universal principles that guide your waka”, but argues that is not enough: it must be supported by targeted reform and policies to succeed.

“For too long, government agencies and offices and ministries have been working on solutions and then saying to Māori, ‘Here’s a solution to whatever problem’."

Solutions will not come in the form of short-term fixes, he says, but a longer-term vision that can be sustained over years or decades.

That is part of the reasoning behind Te Arawhiti, the one-stop shop launched by the Government late last year to address major issues and policies affecting Māori through a closer partnership.

“For too long, government agencies and offices and ministries have been working on solutions and then saying to Māori, ‘Here’s a solution to whatever problem’,” Davis says.

“Really what we need to say is, here’s a problem, how do we work on a solution together so it actually meets the needs of the people who we’re working for?”

Smith is sceptical, noting there is little clarity about Te Arawhiti’s goals and direction, while Tukaki believes it must be supported by standalone legislation to guide future governments about its role and resources.

Te Tii or not Te Tii?

The future location of the Waitangi commemoration itself may also be up in the air.

Paraone says the decision to move the official pōwhiri away from Te Tii Marae to the Upper Treaty Grounds was for a two-year period only, and while he favours retaining its new location, that is not guaranteed.

Davis is non-committal about the Government’s preference, saying he will wait to see how this year goes, but says the move away from Te Tii Marae meant 2018 was “the first time in decades there was absolutely no issues whatsoever”.

“For me, dignity and respect and decorum are really the key themes. I think in the past, politicians and the way we’ve bustled and jostled for position and timing of pōwhiri over at Te Tii Marae have led to some of the issues that have gone on.”

“Māori are the eternal optimists: we’ve been optimists since the Treaty was signed all those years ago.”

That attitude has driven some changes to protocol for this year’s pōwhiri: Davis says all political parties will walk on at once, with an equal number of speakers for each party, all MPs singing a waiata after politicians’ speeches, and earpieces for simultaneous translations.

Smith was not involved in the consultation around the pōwhiri, but says National is supportive of anything which helps Waitangi Day become a chance for “peaceful commemoration and celebration”.

“We want to be upfront about those times in history where Māori did suffer injustice, but equally we want the focus to be on the future.”

Māori will be looking to the future too, and whether Ardern’s government can deliver on its promises: perhaps with an added degree of wariness, but also hope.

As Tukaki says: “Māori are the eternal optimists: we’ve been optimists since the Treaty was signed all those years ago.”

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