Jacinda Ardern and her college friend Colleen in Whanganui. Photo: Toby Manhire

Why Jacinda Ardern’s decision to spend five days at Waitangi is a really big deal

Rangatira ki te rangatira: Ardern’s approach to Waitangi commemorations offers the chance to break from the bad old days under PMs of both parties, writes Annabelle Lee 

Every Waitangi it’s the same.

The lack of gratitude shown by Māori at being among the poorest, sickest, most unemployed and incarcerated people in Aotearoa is an ongoing source of consternation for a long white crowd of politicians.

When asked by Radio New Zealand why he won’t be in attendance at Waitangi this year former prime minister Bill English had this to say.

It’s pretty much been marred by some kind of controversy. Just remember how wider New Zealand has often see this. They get a bit apprehensive if not a bit bored by the build up to Waitangi Day and the unnecessary controversy around it. It would be much better if the build up to our national day was positive.

Māori are such party poopers. English goes on to say:

What I would like to see at Waitangi is that thousands of New Zealanders see it as a place they should go to as a place to celebrate their national day, that’s currently not the case.

For anyone who has actually spent February 6 at Waitangi, you would know that this statement is patently untrue.

In fact it’s a testament to the generosity and optimism of Māori that despite nearly two centuries of treaty breaches that have left them at the bottom of every statistical barrel you care to look in, thousands of Māori still turn up to honour the signing of the Treaty.

While politicians and mainstream media would have you believe that Waitangi is merely a dildo/mud-slinging contest, that’s actually not the case. From waka paddlers to kura kaupapa kids, Māori rights advocates to ringawera who feed the masses, every year thousands of Māori make the pilgrimage to celebrate, commemorate and to challenge.

Perhaps Mr English hasn’t noticed because the usual practice for politicians is to get there, avoid said mud, say a speech and beat a path back out as quickly as possible. Maybe that’s because sitting down and listening to how Māori are hurting is too uncomfortable.

The haste of these visits means most prime ministers don’t ever meaningfully engage with the numerous positive kaupapa that are held at Waitangi.

That’s why Jacinda Ardern’s decision to spend five days in Te Tai Tokerau is hugely significant. For the first time a prime minister will come to Waitangi and spend more time listening than talking.

Ardern’s time in the north is a critical opportunity for Labour to reset its tumultuous and at times exploitative relationship with Māori. During the same interview Mr English stated “Labour have a much more government dominated view of how Māori should behave.” He’s right. Case in point is the former Labour government’s decision to legislate away the right of Māori to test their claims to the seabed and foreshore before the courts. A decision that cost them five of the seven Māori seats.

Ardern now has the chance to show that her Labour government is not the Clark government of old.

There are two leadership concepts Māori place huge value on. The first is ‘kanohi kitea’ best translated as visible leadership. It was visible leadership that allowed the late Hon. Parekura Horomia to retain his seat in Ikaroa Rāwhiti despite the iwi of the east coast being among the worst affected by his government’s foreshore and seabed legislation. Whatever the hui, if it mattered to his people, Horomia made time to be there and he was loved for it.

Waitangi matters to Māori. Under the korowai of her key Māori advisors, five days in Te Tai Tokerau will demonstrate that Ardern understands the importance of kanohi kitea and is prepared to invest the time to practice it. Time will tell if the rest of Labour’s Pākehā leadership are too.

The second concept is ‘rangatira ki te rangatira’, meeting chief to chief. The best example of how Labour has failed to live up to this while in government was in 2005 when they appointed the then MP for Taupo Mark Burton as Minister for Treaty Negotiations. Under Burton, settlements pretty much ground to a halt until he resigned from cabinet in 2007 and was replaced by Dr Michael Cullen. Māori leaders didn’t appreciate dealing with someone who was seen as not being of sufficient rank for the job.

In this regard National have out performed Labour. Christopher Finlayson is held in the highest regard and under his stewardship the settlement process has taken a quantum leap forward.

But National has taken the concept of ‘rangatira ki te rangatira’ to the extreme, preferring the Iwi Leaders Forum as their primary point of contact with te ao Māori.

Like Key before him, English is a big fan of the forum thanks to what he describes as their “forward looking, business focus”. But to say that National has engaged meaningfully with Māori as a result of this relationship is like saying you’ve consulted with New Zealanders because you’ve had a hui with the Business Round Table.

Ardern’s five days means the prime minister will spend time among some of our most neglected communities as opposed to the conference centres often frequented by the forum.

The decision for Ardern to speak on the māhau at Waitangi’s top marae will not have been made lightly. Negotiations to hammer down the detail of how this will work are still ongoing. But that Ardern is willing to put herself out there is an admirable expression of rangatira ki te rangatira.

It’s not for me to comment on the tikanga implications of Ardern speaking on a marae, but in my experience Ngāpuhi are exponents of the saying huri te ao, huri te tikanga – as the world evolves, so too does tikanga.

Titewhai Harawira once famously challenged Helen Clark’s right to speak on her marae when she herself hadn’t been afforded the same courtesy. On February 6 she will escort Ardern onto the marae. That’s Ngāpuhi pragmatism in practice. There will be those who maybe offended by Ardern speaking on a marae and there will also be those who take offence to the people who are offended about her speaking on a marae. At the end of the day it’s for Māori to decide when and how our culture adapts and evolves. Not for Pākehā.

For those who will challenge Ardern’s right to speak, I think it’s worth remembering that when our tūpuna signed the treaty ‘The Crown’ was being worn by Queen Victoria.

Today another wahine represents the Crown and like most others I am curious to hear her vision for the future of our nation’s Treaty partnership.

For anyone who has ever done it, and for those who have watched on, you will know it takes courage to speak on a marae. Her desire to speak and more importantly to listen shows she has plenty of it.

Nōreira kia kaha rā e te Pirimia.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.