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Ardern faces big questions at Waitangi

Jacinda Ardern can look back on her second visit to Waitangi as prime minister with satisfaction, even if it couldn’t compare to her inaugural trip. But Ardern’s visit was as much a showcase for the excellent work of Waitangi organisers as anything else, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Should the Treaty of Waitangi be enshrined in a New Zealand constitution, or a mandatory part of the school curriculum? How can politicians unwind the effects of colonisation on Māori, and decades of overrepresentation in key areas?

The fact these questions have neither quick nor easy answers does not reduce their significance. That they were among the issues lobbed at Jacinda Ardern during this year’s visit to Waitangi is a sign of the great expectations many have for her Government.

Ardern’s follow-up visit to the birthplace of Te Tiriti o Waitangi was not as potent as her five-day stay in 2018 - but that does not mean it was not a success.

What the Prime Minister lacked in korero, she substituted with government mahi - $100 million to help develop Māori land, and another $80m for an employment initiative.

The saying goes that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that is not of much use to a waka with a decades- or centuries-old hole in the bottom.

On top of that, there were signals that targeted funding may make a comeback in this year’s Budget, after Ardern and her Finance Minister Grant Robertson focused on universal schemes last year.

That seems a welcome decision: the saying goes that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that is not of much use to a waka with a decades- or centuries-old hole in the bottom.

The Waitangi Day BBQ run by government MPs for the public was again a PR success, although the images of Ardern heaping mounds of bacon onto the hotplate seem ripe for reuse at some point when accusations of pork-barrel politics next rear their head.

There were some hints of a less accommodating attitude from some Māori leaders this year.

Last year, Ngāpuhi leader Sonny Tau spoke of Ardern’s youth, along with that of her country, as a “dynamite” combination for New Zealand.

This year, he scolded her - although not by name - for her very public failure to identify the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi, saying the country’s leaders needed to know its contents.

It was an example of the pressure being placed on Ardern and her Government by Māori, after last year’s warm welcome.

The Government knows that pork-barrel politics will not be enough to address the concerns of Māori. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

To her credit, the Prime Minister has not shied away from that burden, emphasising that she was keeping, and would continue to keep, her promise to be held to account.

The first big test of that will come in May, when Ardern and Robertson reveal their Budget bag of tricks - but meeting expectations is about more than money.

Can Te Arawhiti, the new Māori-Crown relations office, live up to the Government’s vision of a bridge for the Crown and Māori to meet on more equal terms than has often been the case?

How will Ardern live up to her words that equality is not enough, that there must be a greater understanding of Māori culture and heritage for there to be a true partnership?

The fate of long-running discussions between the Government and Ngāpuhi over how to settle the iwi’s Treaty claim may act as a test of that.

Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little says there is goodwill on both sides, but differences of opinion on the best way forward - if there is no sign of bridging that gap by the next Waitangi commemorations, the Government could expect a degree of discontent.

Waitangi organisers deserve praise

On the whole, this year’s Waitangi events were again a resounding success, for which the organising committee and others involved in the day deserve the lion’s share of praise.

The move away from Te Tii Marae has helped to restore a sense of calm to proceedings, aided by efforts to encourage greater decorum from politicians rather than going head to head in an effort to win votes.

Waitangi organising committee chairman Pita Paraone said there would need to be discussions about the pōwhiri’s location ahead of the 2020 event, but it is to be hoped that it can stay at the Treaty grounds.

There is enough genuine debate to be had about Waitangi Day and what it means for New Zealand, without media reaching for easy headlines from those who seek to manufacture controversy.

Let us also hope that the likes of Don Brash and Brian Tamaki do not have as prominent a role at Waitangis to come.

Brash and Tamaki are entitled to express their views, but we are also entitled to look to others who can express a range of opinions - not simply liberal orthodoxy - in a more reasoned and informed way.

There is enough genuine debate to be had about Waitangi Day and what it means for New Zealand, without media reaching for easy headlines from those who seek to manufacture controversy.

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