‘A smile on the face of Waitangi’

Jacinda Ardern has made history as the first female prime minister to speak at the Waitangi pōwhiri. Sam Sachdeva reports on the mood from the Treaty Grounds, and Ardern’s call for her government to be held to account.

Heading into Waitangi commemorations, Shane Jones feared the weather would be “more fickle than the people”.

Yet as the clear blue skies and shimmering water defied early forecasts, Jones remarked to Jacinda Ardern: “You have certainly put a smile of the face of Waitangi today.”

It would be fair to assume Waitangi put a smile on Ardern’s face too, with a mood of enthusiasm and optimism as she became the first female prime minister to speak at the government pōwhiri.

With Waitangi organisers moving the pōwhiri to the upper Treaty Grounds from Te Tii Marae, following Bill English’s boycott last year, the hope of a peaceful morning was fulfilled with no protests and a crowd of curious locals and tourists looking on.

Ardern had spoken beforehand about feeling the weight of expectations, and it showed on her face and that partner Clarke Gayford as their visiting party received a series of wero (challenges).

Green Party leader James Shaw, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and then Gayford accepted the wero, before the visitors received a roaring haka as they made their way onto the whare runanga.

Ardern was flanked by two kuia, Dame Naida Glavish and Titewhai Harawira - the latter having famously reduced Helen Clark to tears over her attempt to speak at Te Tii Marae.

'I do not take this privilege lightly'

Opening with remarks in Te Reo read from cue cards, the Prime Minister was quick to acknowledge the historical element of her speech.

“I do not take lightly the privilege extended to me to speak from this verandah today, not only as a prime minister but as a wahine.”

Ardern made much of her plan to spend five days at Waitangi before heading up, and told the crowd of about 150 her time up north was about action as much as talk.

“We did not come simply for the beauty and hospitality of the north, we came here because there is much work to do, much mahi to do, and we will only achieve what needs to be done together.”

The role of Minister for Crown/Māori Relations, given to Kelvin Davis, had not been created lightly but as a recognition that “our relationship goes beyond the negotiating table and will continue on with strength and with hope”.

“When I think of this story, and all of the reasons these grounds hold memories for me, I can’t help think of the kinds of things I would want my child to think about as they come on to these grounds and to this place."

Ardern said she had visited Waitangi many times, the first as a 7-year-old whose father “had a great love of history, and wanted us to learn the history of the place we lived and were lucky enough to call home”.

Her father had “completely shamed his two daughters” by kissing their mother right on the lips as they posed for a photo, she said.

“When I think of this story, and all of the reasons these grounds hold memories for me, I can’t help think of the kinds of things I would want my child to think about as they come on to these grounds and to this place.

“My hope is they know this place’s history ... my hope is that they would know the history of Te Tiriti, and what it meant for us as a nation, and that they know that those stories that I was taught yesterday by Ngati Manu, those stories may be hard to hear but I am certain they are even harder to tell.

“That is our history, and we must always be honest about our history and what it means for us.”

Frank discussions healthy, not failure

Ardern said she hoped her child would know the value of manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga, as well as speaking to each other “kanohi ki te kanohi — face to face”.

“We should never shy away from that, because if we don’t speak frankly, how do we change? And if we value that about ourselves as a nation, 364 days of the year, why would we not value it here at Waitangi.”

Speaking openly was not a sign of failure but of the health of New Zealand, she said.

Talking about the differences between the whare runanga where she spoke and the Treaty House where James Busby did much of his work, Ardern said she hoped her child would know “that we have the power to change, and we must change”.

“If you ask me, the distance between this whare and the old homestead is the difference between us as people and the inequalities we still have.

“The distance between here and here is unemployment, is rangatahi who don’t have hope for their future, it’s the poverty that exists amongst whanau, it’s those rangatahi who don’t have access to mental health services and take their lives, it’s the fact that not everyone has a decent home, a decent place to live, and it’s the incarceration of the Māori people disproportionately to everyone else.

“That is the distance between us, and so long as that exists, so long as that exists we have failed in our partnership, but I inherently believe in our power to change and I hope not only that my child believes in that power too, but I hope that they will see the change for themselves.”

"Hold us to account. Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here, and only you can tell me when I have done that.”

Ardern said her Government would work closely with Māori during their time in power, as they needed to work together to identify solutions to the country’s problems.

"So when we return in one year, in three years, I ask you to ask of us what we have done...

"Hold us to account. Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here, and only you can tell me when I have done that.”

Even National MP Steven Joyce, who could have been forgiven for wanting to stay away — “We all have our own unique experience at Waitangi, mine is probably more unique than most,” he quipped — could not resist waxing lyrical about the occasion.

“Every time I come to Waitangi, I’m reminded this is probably the best place in the world for the birthplace of a nation.”

Speaking after the pōwhiri, Davis said there was “no comparison” to previous occasions at Waitangi.

“This has been an absolutely fantastic morning, and as I said in my very brief words on the marae ... I’ve seen Ngāpuhi at its best and I told them I was so proud of them for what we’ve experienced today.”

Ardern said she was pleased with the openness of the event, and seemed to suggest she would make similar extended trips to Waitangi in future.

“I intend that no matter what Waitangi Day will not just be about the commemoration, the day before and on the day, but an opportunity for us to come and to keep working on those practical issues that we’ve said we want to work on.”

However, she would leave it to Waitangi organisers as to whether the pōwhiri should remain on the upper marae or return to Te Tii.

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