Hard News by Russell Brown


Waitangi: Just enjoy the day

It's not hard to divine the public narrative of Waitangi Day 2018: the Prime Minister and her party have enjoyed a positive, significant and possibly even historic week in the North.

Something has changed at Waitangi wrote Simon Wilson in the Herald, observing in a follow-up column that Ardern's "triumph at Waitangi turned out to be a near-perfect way to pull together all the threads of her ambition: political, cultural, personal." Newshub's reporters quoted many of those present marvelling at the change in atmosphere this year. Sharp commentators like Leonie Hayden, Morgan Godfery and Shane Te Pou declared that something good was indeed in the air.

Newshub reported, a touch unfairly, that Opposition leader Bill English was claiming credit for the success of this year's ceremonies. What both English and Steven Joyce said was the the decision to move events away from the lower marae, Te Tii, had removed a perennial flashpoint for trouble. That was more a matter for Ngāpuhi than the former government, but it would still seem to be true.

Was it, as some doubters are claiming, the sole factor in this different sort of day? No. That's ridiculous.

There is a backdrop here. In the broadest sense, a Labour Prime Minister went to Waitangi at a time when the thunderous dismissal of the political overreach of certain Māori Party figures – to Labour's direct electoral benefit – echoes still. She arrived on the back of a great deal of groundwork by her own Māori MPs, most notably Peeni Henare. I suspect that last is where where the idea of spending a full five days in the North came from. That was, as Annabelle Lee wrote in a great column for The Spinoff in advance of the day, a really big deal.

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.

When Ardern did speak on Monday, what she said was notable in various ways. Her request for Māori to hold her government to account on poverty and inequality was widely reported, but I thought the metaphor she conjured to express that was the real heart of it:

A kaumatua spoke about the differences between these two whares on these grounds, and if you ask me the distance between this whare and the old homestead is the difference between us as people, the inequality 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 whānau, it’s those rangatahi who don’t have access to the mental health services who 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.

From a politician who is not a natural orator, especially by marae standards, it was a remarkable address, in part because it seemed personally authentic.

The for-the-many-not-the-few philosphy outlined in the speech, and over the days before it, was summed up as dawn broke yesterday. Ardern had decided that the start to the day should not be the invite-only breakfast at the Copthorne Hotel conducted by John Key in recent years, but a public barbecue, cooked and served by the Prime Minister and her MPs on the Treaty grounds. The symbolism of that was immense.

The government cannot and will not stop talking to iwi leaders, of course. The increasingly capable, business-minded people at the helm of iwi affairs are vital figures in the country's future, whether they be those guiding the likes of Tuhoe, Ngati Whanaunga or Ngati Paoa in their new post-settlement journeys, or the second and third-generation leaders of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Whātua. But reaching past them to the people was significant.

It helped also, of course, that the Prime Minister is hapū. What is shaping up as the best unplanned pregnancy ever had the kuia cooing and offered some shelter from any hostility that might arise.

But with all this – with the good political timing, the assiduous organisation and all the favourable winds – Jacinda Ardern still needed to turn up and do it. It was an easy observation to make that she did something John Key or Bill English could not have done, but I think it's also true that Helen Clark couldn't have either. Ardern's ease with people, her availability to them, her sincerity, is significant and it's a component of leadership.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some people are quite upset about the positive result at Waitangi. I had to block someone on Twitter yesterday, not because they abused me – I've been called a hack before and it doesn't hurt – but because they repeatedly used the phrase "Ngapuhi goons". It was really the wrong week to do that. I stood in a church a few days ago to farewell my friend and I talked about his pride in his Ngapuhi whakapapa and greeted his family.

What about the water tax and the Kermadec sanctuary? the same person demanded. Where were they discussed? As far as I know, they weren't, and would not have been in the normal course of events. But it's evident that Labour faces some tricky policy issues that will directly weigh on Māori interests. It's also evident that what happened over these five days in the North will make it easier to navigate those issues in good faith. It's not that hard to grasp.

A number of reports and commentaries focused on the lack of protest as a benchmark of yesterday's success. Personally, I was somewhat relieved to hear that Kingi Taurua had fronted up to complain about the sidelining of Te Tii. Protest is okay. And it was okay, too, for Bill English to be at Bluff yesterday. We may have certain perceptions of Southland, but as Ali Jones noted on Twitter, Kai Tahu historian Michael Stevens' history of Bluff speaks of a deep history of Māori identity.

Yesterday did feel different, and perhaps like the start of something new. That was, as I've noted, down to a combination of fortune, timing, preparation, political narrative and the personal qualities of the new Prime Minister. And it doesn't really make sense to unpick any one of those from the other. Perhaps it's best to just enjoy the day that was.

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