Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has wrapped up her five-day visit to the Far North by attending the Waitangi Day dawn service. Sam Sachdeva reports from Waitangi on her final words and the parting gifts she received from locals.
Starry skies, a glorious sunrise and an unexpected gift – possibly the perfect way to end a trip to the birthplace of New Zealand, one that Jacinda Ardern says exceeded her own expectations.
Upwards of a thousand people gathered at the Treaty Grounds for the annual Waitangi Day dawn service, wrapping blankets tightly around them to stay warm as they waited for the sunrise.
The crowds packed tightly into the space around the whare runanga, forcing a Māori policeman to clear a path for Ardern and her delegation – “It’s kind of a modern day Moses thing,” he quipped.
The Biblical theme continued on a morning of quiet worship and contemplation, with various prayers and hymns from speakers.
Ardern read an extract from John O’Donohue’s book Benedictus, beginning: “Let us welcome the wonder of this day, the field of brightness and hope it creates, offering time for each thing to arise and illuminate.
“Let us all place upon the altar of dawn the quiet loyalty of breath. Let us awaken our spirits to new frontiers, and may the nourishment of the earth be ours, may the clarity of light be ours, may we awaken to the mystery of being here at Waitangi and enter the quiet immensity of our own presence.”
National MP Steven Joyce chose a reading from The Bible, Ephesians 2:13 to 2:16, saying it was used 178 years ago “to describe the covenant being entered into between the Queen and Māori”.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
"We’ve got a very very young country and a very very young leader, and that combination...is going to be dynamite for this country."
Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon offering blessings for Ardern, her partner Clarke Gayford and the health of their child – and he couldn’t resist adding to the growing list of advice for the expectant couple.
“Bless all the people who have given names to the child to be and the places to lay the pito [umbilical cord], but let it be known that 50 percent of the whakapapa is from Tairawhiti [the East Coast]."
After a rendition of Whakaaria Mai and the national anthem, Ngapuhi leader Sonny Tau took to the stage and offered praise for Ardern.
"We’ve got a very very young country and a very very young leader, and that combination, according to her words in the last three or four days, is going to be dynamite for this country."
Tau said Ngapuhi had “had a good run” with the last National government, and hoped that positivity could continue.
“We’ve got a long way to go yet, but with the talks we’ve had over the last couple of years it just keeps getting better and better.”
The service broke on that positive note, allowing the crowd to gather in front of the flagstaff and watch the sun rise over the water and hills.
The work wasn’t over for Ardern, however. She and her government MPs took up tongs at a breakfast barbecue for the public, in a change from the tradition of a invite-only breakfast at the Copthorne Hotel.
After a brief stint behind the grill, Ardern took the stage to apologise for the shortage of food - numbers were about double what had been expected – and explain her decision to host the event.
“They said the tradition is that you host a breakfast and immediately in my mind I thought, ‘Great, bacon butties’...
"The reason we are here is because we didn't want walls to partition off who was able to join us this morning.”
After a promise to run the breakfast again next year – “We’ll cater properly for Ngapuhi appetites next time” – it was off to the stalls on the lower Waitangi grounds.
Posing for selfie after selfie, Ardern had a ta moko placed on her left arm – after receiving an assurance it would wash off easily – but that wasn’t the only gift she received.
Master weaver Cassandra Moar gave Ardern and Gayford wahakura, traditional Māori woven flax baskets for babies to allow them to sleep safely with their parents.
"I wouldn't say I've changed the game. I think Ngapuhi have changed the game up here."
Speaking to media, Ardern said her visit had “exceeded expectations”, although she was keen to downplay her own role in the nature of celebrations.
"I wouldn't say I've changed the game. I think Ngapuhi have changed the game up here. The hospitality that we've experienced and really the work that has gone into deciding how the commemorations will be held has made a huge difference," she said.
However, she acknowledged the change of venue for the breakfast was part of her government’s approach to the parts of Waitangi it did have a role in.
“We did want to do things differently, the barbeque was part of that, it was just about making sure that we spent more time amongst the people to come out and be here on Waitangi Day...I prefer bacon butties over formal breakfasts anyway.”
Ardern said she felt the weight of expectation as she headed back to Wellington, adding that it would be concrete achievement, rather than rhetoric, on which her government would be judged.
“Yes, we can talk about our general principles and values and what we want to achieve, but the rubber starts hitting the road when we talk about actual infrastructure projects and the like.”