Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s second speech at Waitangi lacked the spark of her 2018 debut, but made it clear she knows the weight of work still to be done. Sam Sachdeva reports on the highlights from a peaceful political pōwhiri.

It was perhaps inevitable that Jacinda Ardern would struggle to match the highs of her debut at Waitangi last year.

Blessed with the blank slate of a new Government and the historic nature of her speech, Ardern was able to focus on biography as much as politics, speaking of her family’s visits to the Treaty grounds and her hopes for her then-unborn child.

“Hold us to account,” the Prime Minister urged then; 12 months on, she was back at the whare runanga for the nitty-gritty business of that accountancy.

Māori unemployment and imprisonment levels; housing, education and poverty. All were areas, Ardern said, where the Government had made progress in the last year.

Yet it is clear her talk of 2019 as a “year of delivery” extends to the Government’s work with Māori.

Each time she highlighted an area of progress, she was quick to add a variation on the theme: “There is still more to do.”

Jacinda Ardern was quick to emphasise the Government’s job was not done. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

That is unsurprising for a Government barely out of its first year, and Ardern not unreasonably resisted the suggestion that her refrain was an admission of failure when speaking to media afterwards.

“We have made good progress. But I am very hard to satisfy. So yes, we do have more work to do.”

Drawing again on the distance, literal and metaphorical, between the whare runanga and James Busby’s former residence at Waitangi, Ardern said the gap still needed to be closed.

“This year has taught me that we may make progress on inequality, we may reduce poverty, we may reduce unemployment, education, the prison population, but there will still for all of that be distance between these two houses.”

Bridging that gap will be no easy task, with Ardern alluding to Te Arawhiti – the Government’s new Māori-Crown relations unit – when talking about the need to be more willing to meet Māori on their own terms.

“Equality is our foundation but it is not our bridge. Yes, equality matters – making progress on all of the things that politicians should commit to together, all of that matters, but it will never replace the need to know our shared history, our shared heritage.”

That was perhaps the closest the Prime Minister came to touching the rhetorical heights of last year’s speech – but a more prosaic approach may be no bad thing.

It will be the Government’s action in 2019 – specifically, the targeted funding for Māori hinted at for this year’s Budget – which she will be judged on at her next Waitangi.

“Korero is good, barbecues are better, and getting hold of some of Shane Jones’ funds, that’s magic – but actually what our peoples need is a plan that is delivered on.”

Simon Bridges, the first National leader to speak at Waitangi in four years, was quick to use Ardern’s words against her.

“Korero is good, barbecues are better, and getting hold of some of Shane Jones’ funds, that’s magic – but actually what our peoples need is a plan that is delivered on.”

Bridges borrowed from his predecessor Bill English in seeking to critique Labour’s supposedly paternalistic stance towards Māori, saying his party did not view the Government as “a benevolent but a controlling parent that thinks that it knows best”.

The argument seems a stretch, given the Government’s close ties to and discussions with iwi, but with its new Crown-Māori relations spokesman Nick Smith sticking to the same line ahead of Waitangi, it’s clear National feels it may resonate with Māori.

Overall, though, the pōwhiri was light on political attacks – perhaps a function of the changes made to this year’s event in the name of enhancing its dignity.

Politicians of all stripes were welcomed onto the Treaty grounds as one, rather than divided by party, while the joint waita after each speech reinforced the sense of solidarity.

A lone protester momentarily disturbed the peace at the Treaty grounds, but it was not long before order was restored. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

The peace was momentarily disturbed by a lone protester at the beginning of the pōwhiri, but it was not long before order was restored.

It was, as James Shaw said, a pleasant sensation before MPs “start the biffo next week” as Parliament resumes, and a reminder of the benefits of moving the ceremony away from Te Tii Marae.

Te Tii has done its best to seize back the spotlight this year, with Don Brash and Brian Tamaki both picked to speak at the marae.

Brash made it onto the marae with little drama, but reportedly faced numerous heckles during his attempt to speak, while Tamaki roared into town on his motorcycle ahead of duelling Waitangi Day sermons with Shane Jones.

Brash and Tamaki have predictably stolen their share of headlines, but the good work being done by organisers at the Upper Treaty Grounds should not be forgotten.

As Bridges said: “I don’t think there could be a better, a finer, a more perfect place for what is it, nearly 180 years ago, the bringing together of two peoples.”

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

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