Politics

Political sparks fly at Waitangi as PM promises ‘more mahi’

There was a sharper, election-year edge to proceedings at this year's Waitangi pōwhiri. Simon Bridges and Winston Peters clashed, while Jacinda Ardern made the case for why Māori should have patience with her Government, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Among the changes made to the Waitangi pōwhiri last year was a decision to welcome all politicians onto the Upper Treaty Grounds at the same time, rather than dividing them along party lines.

It was an admirable attempt to build unity - but this year, Simon Bridges and Winston Peters showed that the move still has its limitations.

The discomfort was palpable as the pair briefly stood next to each other waiting to be welcomed onto the whare runanga, less than 48 hours after Bridges had ruled out National seeking the support of Peters’ New Zealand First in any form after this year’s election.

Bridges offered up a small smile for the cameras, while Peters was almost squirming - eventually moving Greens co-leader James Shaw into his spot to create some distance between the two.

That proved a sign of what was to come during the korero, with a slightly sharper edge to proceedings than at the last two Waitangi pōwhiri - perhaps unsurprisingly, given it is an election year.

Bridges’ speech seemed to be addressed not to those on the paepae, but for the New Zealanders who would be following events at Waitangi from home.

After a glancing reference to National’s record on Treaty of Waitangi settlements, Whānau Ora and partnership schools, he moved swiftly to attacking Ardern as he referenced her speech at Waitangi last year.

“She said there would be less poverty, she said that she would reduce inequality between Māori and Pākehā, sadly the Government has failed to deliver on these promises.”

The “one thing that the North needs for economic transformation”, said Bridges, was a four-lane highway connecting the region to Auckland - the type of project he argued the current Government could not be trusted to deliver.

“As we stand here, nice talk, nice words, announcements, sausage sizzle...they’re nice, they’re good, there’s nothing wrong with them, but what the north and New Zealand actually needs is leadership that gets things done.”

Simon Bridges and Winston Peters did not appear entirely comfortable next to one another as they waited to enter the Upper Treaty Grounds. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

That gave the coalition parties an opportunity for a moral high ground that Shaw had the first chance to jump on.

“I don’t want to debase this place or this occasion with petty partisan politics. We have plenty of time for that this year, oodles of time - starting next week.”

Even Peters, who could politicise the opening of an envelope, decided to take umbrage, with Shane Jones giving up some of his speaking time so his leader could put the boot in.

“If we can come to this place after 180 years and trample all over the recognition of the significance of what it means, the past and the future, for politics then we’re in trouble, and I say to all of you, ‘What am I doing, I’m making sure you don’t get away with it’.”

Bridges suggested - not unreasonably - that the criticism from the coalition parties seemed cynical: “Every speech contained politics, and they have every Waitangi I’ve been to.”

Indeed, Shaw’s speech included a plug of the fact that the Greens wanted to go “further and faster” than the Government had managed so far, while Peters signed off with a thinly veiled plug for New Zealand First.

“When you get to the polling booth, you can have all the penchant to vote the way your parents and ancestors said you might do, but be wise - buy yourself some insurance.”

And there was politics of a different kind from the speakers from the tangata whenua side of the whare runanga, focused less on scoring points and more about the changes needed for Ngāpuhi and Māori.

Isaiah Apiata, of Ngāti Kawa and Ngāti Rahiri descent, began his speech with a musical message to the Government.

“You gave me four woolly blankets, you gave me little cups of tea, you gave me the ink to put your pen in to sign Te Tiriti,” he sang.

“I have no more woolly blankets, I have no more cups of tea, the ink has dried up in the vessel, I now pay GST.”

Isaiah Apiata urged the Government to tackle the over-representation of Māori in prison, as well as their rights to water ownership. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The over-representation of Māori in prison, the need for Māori water rights to be recognised - “we own the water from time immemorial, from the time of Kupe” - and the dental issues facing some Māori were among the issues canvassed by Apiata.

“I ask you humbly to consider free dentistry for those of our iwi Māori that cannot afford it.”

Anaru Kira, of Whangaroa, called on both Ardern and Bridges to accept the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal’s Wai 1040 inquiry, which in 2014 found that Ngapuhi had never surrendered their sovereignty when signing Te Tiriti.

“Have the courage - it isn’t going to be easy for you, but until you make those calls, nothing will change for the things that we struggle for every day, every week and for the rest of our lives.”

Te Waihoroi Shortland, of Ngāti Hine, had sharp words for Bridges as he described how the National Party had frittered away its support among Māori.

“We were all National supporters, and it was through your party [that] damaged that spirit within us, and it is through your initiatives that Māori left you, and it was through your lack of understanding of the traditions that we left you.”

But it was Ardern on whom most attention focused, with her speech carrying echoes of last year in promoting progress but acknowledging a lack of perfection.

“When I first came here, I said ‘Hold me to account’, and I will keep coming back here so you can do just that - not because we lack scrutiny, there is plenty of that, but because we should never be afraid of it.

“Waitangi is the place where we acknowledge our past but it must also be the place where we challenge our present, but be collectively hopeful about our future."

"Every time we learn from one another, every time we have an exchange of culture, a shared understanding of history, then we see...the crossover on the bridge between the two worlds.”

As in 2019, each Government success mentioned was swiftly followed by a qualifier - “there is more mahi to do”.

It was not just what the Government did for Māori that mattered, Ardern said, but how it did it.

Too often, Māori were asked to cross over into the Pākehā world rather than welcome Pākehā into their own.

"Every time we learn from one another, every time we have an exchange of culture, a shared understanding of history, then we see...the crossover on the bridge between the two worlds.”

As the recent Whānau Ora inquiry into Oranga Tamariki’s uplift of Māori children shows, the two worlds are not always easily bridged - but speaking to media afterwards, Ardern was hopeful that would change.

“There is work to do, mistakes have been made, but I’m actually of the view that we have a shared view about where we need to go.”

From the crowd’s reaction to her speech, she seems to have the benefit of the doubt for now - but a bigger test of that will come on September 19.

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