The government is set to be welcomed onto the Treaty Grounds after three days of calls for unity against its policies. Madeleine Chapman writes from Waitangi.
Chris Hipkins stood in a shadowy nook beneath the bridge that connects Te Tii Marae and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, speaking to a small group of reporters about the need to support Māori in their fight against what he described as divisive policies from the new coalition government. He attempted, not quite successfully, to speak over the sounds of the waka crews with whom he’d just spent time. As if on cue, he was asked whether Labour’s inability to communicate its co-governance policies to non-Māori while in government helped set the scene for today’s divisive political landscape. The former prime minister acknowledged that his government “could’ve explained it to non-Māori better” but insisted that the new government alone was responsible for any fallout from its proposals.
Hipkins, alongside Willie Jackson and Willow-Jean Prime, the highest-ranking MPs of the Labour Māori caucus, were answering questions as members of the biggest party in opposition, though whether they are leading the opposition at Waitangi this year is up for debate. Labour has been relatively quiet since the election, while its contemporaries on the left have been vocal, visible and largely aligned on issues as broad as climate, Palestine and Te Tiriti. So where does Labour stand? “There’s a huge worry among our people,” said Jackson, referencing the speeches given at the opposition pōwhiri on Saturday, where his party’s Kelvin Davis and Peeni Henare and the Greens’ Teanau Tuiono spoke of the coalition government as “a three-headed taniwha” and “a den of lions”. In response, Ngāpuhi asked them to “lick your wounds, make a plan, work out how you will move us forward. But don’t take too long.”
The party has promised to “listen” this week before deciding how exactly it will work with Māori. As the Labour MPs stood under the bridge, debating whether or not their party had done more for Māori than previous National governments, the tide rose, slowly but surely, and lapped at their feet.
Set against the backdrop of recent mobilisations at Tūrangawaewae and Rātana, Waitangi this year will be historic for its breadth alone. With a record-breaking attendance of at least 40,000 expected to pass through by Tuesday, Christopher Luxon and his coalition partners can expect a large, if not necessarily warm, welcome to their first Waitangi Day as a new government. They may not all be arriving until today (with the government pōwhiri set for 11am) but they’ve certainly been present on the pae. There were plenty of government references on Saturday from the opposition speakers, and on Sunday even more, as Ngāpuhi welcomed te Kiingitanga and the Rātana church to Waitangi for the first time in a long, long while. For many of the 2,000-strong delegation, it was their first time at Waitangi. Some speakers referenced government ministers directly – particularly Act leader David Seymour, he of Ngāpuhi descent and Treaty principles rewriting intentions, and NZ First’s Shane Jones, who challenged Māori at Rātana to attend Waitangi to discuss Treaty of Waitangi matters. But while everyone there knew the tense reason for te Kiingitanga and others’ presence, the focus was on unity and acting for future generations.
Bayden Barber, chair of Ngāti Kahungunu, echoed speakers before him by calling for unity among iwi. “What do we do with this unity? We have come here to fight. We have come here to share thoughts and strategies with you, Ngāpuhi. We have representation of the whole country.” Others shared similar sentiments. “We are also over this current government and their racist rhetoric,” said Rehua Mihaka of Ngāti Pikiao. “We should not fight one another but fight together in unity.”
Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi, meanwhile, whose party chose to walk on with te Kiingitanga, rather than as an opposition party, said, “We must be forward thinking, we must unite. Let us fix us, for the benefit of our children, grandchildren.”
It wasn’t just Māori who spoke of uniting. Aupito William Sio, former Labour minister for Pacific peoples, spoke on behalf of Pacific elders who were present from Sāmoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. He opened with te reo Māori and then Sāmoan, but was the lone speaker allowed to deliver his whaikōrero in English. Sio spoke of himself as a bridge between Pasifika and Māori, and noted the many instances in history when various iwi had supported Pacific communities and the responsibility that comes with that. “Those of us who now call Aotearoa our home, we must stand, must be with you,” he said. “When they attack Māori, we feel that next it is us.” He concluded by promising to gather Pacific leaders in the coming months before presenting a plan of support to Kiingi Tūheitia. It was a strong declaration from a Pacific leader whose political and social views have leaned more and more progressive as each year passes.
Earlier in the day and across the bridge at Te Tii Marae grounds, Fa’anana Efeso Collins was voicing similar intentions from the Green Party tent. Attending his first-ever Waitangi, the new MP admitted to simply wanting to “drink it all in”, but was acutely aware of his unique position as a conduit between Pacific and Māori communities – two communities that, though often lumped together in statistics, have vastly different approaches to conflict, authority, religion and politics. “It’s about bridging that gap,” he said. “The generational shift means the Pasifika community can [now] speak with a bit more volume. The way in which we’ve opposed things has often been polite. Now we understand the effects of colonisation but we don’t see it as a ‘them and us – this a Māori issue and we’ll keep to the side’. This is an us issue, this is something we experience together.”
As he spoke, Chlöe Swarbrick chatted to attendees nearby as the assumed new Greens co-leader, fresh from throwing down the gauntlet and promising transformational politics and a swing to the Greens as the driving force on the political left.
With the government not yet on site, the mood at Waitangi – both at Te Tii and on the Treaty Grounds – was fun. Manus off the bridge, a mulleted boy belting out an impressive karaoke rendition of a Bon Jovi classic, cream pāua and rongoā Māori. Notable Waitangi protest group Ngā Tamatoa reunited as kaumātua to honour the late Moana Jackson and will be speaking today in the forum tent about mobilising and protest. A tauiwi collective gathered to discuss non-Māori modes of support. There was a sense of unity and alignment. And the alignment was in opposition to the new government, and more specifically, the policies put forward by Act and New Zealand First. In fact, Luxon and National were hardly, if at all, mentioned on the pae on Sunday. And Labour’s efforts over six years have been swiftly forgotten with the Treaty Principles Bill, the disestablishment of Te Aka Whai Ora and the deprioritising of te reo Māori taking up all the space.
Today will be eventful and crowded. And with clear lines already drawn on the pae, all eyes will be on Seymour, Jones and Winston Peters, the Māori leaders within the new government. No one is expecting a change of heart from any of them, and each has the potential to take the momentum of this week’s expected protests and swing it towards their own supporters. Meanwhile, National and Labour will continue to occupy two sides of the same centre, stuck between a rock and a radical place.
At 11am, the tide will be rising again at Waitangi. We’ll soon find out who it lifts and who gets washed away.