Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Waitangi trip has wrapped up, with a peaceful dawn service and a light wrap on the knuckles from a Ngāpuhi leader. Sam Sachdeva reports from the Treaty Grounds.

As the sun rose over the horizon at the treaty grounds on a cool Waitangi Day morning, the cloudy skies kept the sunrise in a haze as the crowd watched on.

Not as beautiful as last year, but moving nonetheless: perhaps representative of Jacinda Ardern’s Waitangi visit overall, where the complications of running a government cut across the symbolism of her first trip in 2018.

Hundreds of people filled the grounds in the early hours of Wednesday morning, huddling closely together as politicians and dignitaries filed into the whare runanga.

Opening the ceremony, Te Tai Tokerau Anglican Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu reflected on a speech from the previous day’s pōwhiri which focused on the Māori word tumanako, meaning hope.

“Tumanako is a very powerful word, hope…we have collective hope, we have individual hope, and that’s what I want to emphasise this morning.”

Politicians and dignitaries file into the whare runanga at Waitangi. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Delivering a prayer to “God of the southern seas and of these sparkling islands”, Ardern offered thanks “for this, our beautiful country, and the perfect stillness of this moment at the dawn of Waitangi”.

“We’re grateful for those who first touched us with love and kindness, who nurtured and protected us, who sat down beside us when we were children and taught us to dream and hope for something better.”

Quoting the words of Dame Whina Cooper, she emphasised the importance of looking after the children of New Zealand.

“Take care of our children. Take care of what they hear, take care of what they see, take care of what they feel, for how the children grow, so will be the shape of Aotearoa.”

Ratana Church minister Joe Everett likely spoke for many when remarking on the oddness of having a service at dawn for New Zealand’s most important day, “end[ing] it bleary-eyed and exhausted because we’ve been up since 3 o’clock in the morning”.

“It’s appropriate we make the prayers we make at this time, because the Treaty brought together what appeared to be opposites, and in the joining together searched for the magic.”

However, said Everett, elders had always done their prayers at that time, knowing that “the meeting point between night and day was where the magic was to be found”.

“It’s appropriate we make the prayers we make at this time, because the Treaty brought together what appeared to be opposites, and in the joining together searched for the magic.”

Ngāpuhi leader Sonny Tau took a light jab at Ardern over her failure to recall the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi, saying it was a necessity for the country’s leaders.

“There are some of us leaders who have slipped up on that, and all I ask is by this time next year that we all know the articles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. There’s a lot of angst about Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and a lot of people don’t realise the beautiful document that it is.”

Tau also encouraged the crowd to visit a marae, saying it was “not as scary as people think it is”, while also calling on those gathered to start building the nation from their own homes.

“As the prophet said, there’s no amount of success than can compensate for failure in the homes, so if we start from there our nation will be a better place for us in another year.”

Bacon for the masses

As dawn broke, government ministers and MPs donned Te Arawhiti aprons and headed towards the barbeque for the public that replaced the traditional invite-only breakfast.

The hungry masses exceeded expectations last year, and despite added supplies the ministers were still running low on sausages – “Next year, I hope we get the numbers right,” Ardern quipped.

Among those to be served by the Prime Minister was nine-year-old Ruby Harrington, who was given some extra bacon by Ardern before heading off.

“It’s cool having someone really important talk to you – well everyone here’s important,” Harrington said.

She also received a hug from Ardern, pronouncing: “Yeah, she’s cuddly.”

Ruby Harrington, nine, described the Prime Minister as “cuddly”. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Reflecting on her second Waitangi as Prime Minister, Ardern said it had been a chance to reflect on the Government’s progress over the past year and the work that remained.

“Te Tiriti o Waitangi’s a living document, we will constantly I think be assessing at the areas where we still have a lot of work to do, but also I hope as time goes on, having the chance to reflect on what we’ve achieved as well.”

She downplayed the suggestion it was more difficult this year having a more substantive record in government to defend, saying she had been clear in her debut speech that the Government had to be held to account.

“I did feel a real sense of responsibility, but ultimately we will always be judged on what we achieve, not on words alone, and really it was laying that out from the outset, that that was the way we needed to be judged and I would keep coming back for that.”

Asked whether she hoped to continue receiving a positive reception at Waitangi, Ardern said she only felt entitled to “the greeting we deserve at any given time, and it’ll be the judgment of those at Waitangi as to what it will be”.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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