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Patience, positivity on display for Ardern’s Waitangi visit

The last Waitangi Day before New Zealand's next general election was not as contentious as it could have been, with positive signs in the relationship between the Crown and Māori. But there are still many difficult obstacles to be navigated, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

The skies over Waitangi were overcast as dawn broke on New Zealand’s national day.

The grey, slightly gloomy clouds on the horizon deprived those at the Waitangi Day commemorations from witnessing one of the glorious sunrises that, in the right conditions, makes you feel as if there is nowhere else you could - or should - be.

An ill omen for the end of Jacinda Ardern’s stay at Waitangi this year? Far from it - the weather certainly did not deter a crowd of hundreds from queuing up for the now traditional barbeque staffed by Ardern and her government’s MPs.

Her daughter Neve toddled around behind the grill, playing with cardboard boxes and nibbling on sausages as father Clarke Gayford watched on.

It was a relaxed end to what was a fairly tranquil visit for the Prime Minister, if only in terms of politics rather than scheduling.

The drama and controversy that accompanied Waitangi Days past seems to have receded, with only a handful of protesters voicing their concerns and without any need for security to intervene.

The Government cannot claim all the credit for that, with the Waitangi National Trust’s decision in 2018 to move the political powhiri from the more rambunctious Te Tii Marae to the Upper Treaty Grounds reaping rewards (although several observers noted that numbers appeared to be thinner at Te Tii this year).

But Ardern and company have succeeded in convincing Māori that while they may not have all the answers to the problems they face, they are willing to have a real discussion about how to find them.

"Give us the perseverance in our daily lives to commit to a single action that helps take us to the other side, and in doing so give us the courage to learn to walk comfortably in each other’s shoes.”

Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little is the most obvious example of that, winning yet more praise (this time from Waitangi National Trust chairman Pita Tipene) for his whaikorero in te reo Māori and wider efforts to better understand the issues facing Ngapuhi in their settlement talks.

The Iwi Chairs Forum also failed to produce any public flashpoints, with Ardern saying there was “real common ground” between iwi and the Crown in a number of areas.

Given the talks took place behind closed doors, it was hard to test that, although Te Rarawa iwi leader Haami Piripi told RNZ the hui was “was one of the best meetings that we have had yet between ourselves and the Government”.

Ardern’s choice of prayer for Waitangi Day was also instructive, again hammering home her desire to better bridge the Māori and Pākehā worlds.

"Give us the perseverance in our daily lives to commit to a single action that helps take us to the other side, and in doing so give us the courage to learn to walk comfortably in each other’s shoes.”

Ardern may not have been willing to walk in Simon Bridges’ loafers, the National leader having endured a far chillier reception.

Barracked by speakers at the powhiri for an overly political speech, Bridges was then put under pressure from media over National’s stance on the Māori seats.

His absence at both the opening of Te Rau Aroha (the new museum honouring Māori servicemen and servicewomen) and the Waitangi dawn service was noted by some.

Simon Bridges and his National Party endured a tricky trip to Waitangi. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Bridges appeared unrepentant: speaking to some of his MPs after the powhiri, he was heard to exclaim, “And I’d do it again for the TV cameras” (it was not clear exactly what “it” was).

Given National’s worst party vote performances last election came in the seven Māori seats, he seems to be calculating it is better to create wedge issues rather than making a doomed attempt to win voters who are unlikely to ever support him.

But that risks feeding into the perception of Bridges and National as overly negative, a pitfall that many opposition leaders fall into during their reigns.

Of course, there are many justified criticisms of this government, including a number of significant issues for Māori that may be difficult to resolve.

A media statement from the Iwi Chairs Forum after their meeting emphasised the need to address the rights and interests of iwi, hapū and whānau in freshwater, Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group chair Rukumoana Schaafhausen saying: “Nō tātau te wai - we own the water.”

Then there is the funding (or lack thereof) for Whānau Ora, with Ardern and Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare meeting five Māori women leaders in Wellington next week to discuss their Waitangi Tribunal claim over the issue.

And Ihumatao continues to loom over the Government, Ardern’s hopes of a resolution before Waitangi Day dashed with more work to be done.

“When you talk about kawenata [covenant] and what they signed up to when they heard that word, that means that goes deep. That's a blood relationship, but we don't treat it that way.”

Where there is some agreement between Labour and National, and between politicians and Māori, is that the Crown’s relationship with Māori cannot be solved simply through the transfer of land and other assets.

“This is not a partnership where there's a commercial agreement, this is not a partnership to say, ‘Hey, look, let's try and work things out together, let's just go to court, it's judicial’,” National MP Alfred Ngaro said.

“When you talk about kawenata [covenant] and what they signed up to when they heard that word, that means that goes deep. That's a blood relationship, but we don't treat it that way.”

The words seemed strikingly similar to Little’s description of talks with Ngāpuhi: “They don’t see if and when we do get to an agreement, that's not the end of a process - it's a restoration of the relationship.”

That common understanding is a start - but the gaps between the two major parties, and between the Crown and Māori, will still require much more effort to be bridged.

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