Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heads to Waitangi with question marks over some big issues for Māori – how will she be received, and what difference will that make to Labour’s hopes of hanging on to all seven Māori​​​​​​​ electorate seats?

Comment: When in 2018 she became the first female Prime Minister to speak at the Waitangi pōwhiri, Jacinda Ardern issued a challenge to the crowd – to challenge her in return.

“Hold us to account. Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here, and only you can tell me when I have done that.”

Pregnant then, the Prime Minister now returns with an energetic toddler in tow – and Māori now have an opportunity to assess whether or not her Government’s promises have grown into something more tangible.

There is plenty to be discussed, and plenty of difficult questions for Ardern to face throughout her five-day visit.

Near the top of the list is Ihumātao, and whether a settlement can be reached to the satisfaction of mana whenua, Fletcher Building and the Crown alike.

A burst of optimism early in the year about a resolution has since subsided, but Ardern will undoubtedly be pressed on the issue at Waitangi and must hope an accord can be reached sooner rather than later.

Closer to home in Northland, the Ngāpuhi settlement talks have not progressed as far as many had hoped for when speaking at Waitangi last year, although a series of hui have started this month after the Crown announced it had revoked Tuhoronuku’s negotiating mandate.

Then there is the urgent claim to the Waitangi Tribunal filed by last month by Māori women leaders including Dame Tariana Turia, accusing the Government of undermining the Māori health initiative Whānau Ora and undercutting its funding.

Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare’s response, that “political motivations” were at play with Waitangi weeks away, echoes a wider feeling among some in government, that Māori Party supporters have been all too eager to stoke up discontent on issues like Ihumātao and Oranga Tamariki’s uplifts of Māori children.

Playing politics, or prudent policy concerns?

That is not entirely off the mark: Māori Party flags were scattered throughout a parliamentary protest about Oranga Tamariki last year, while party president Che Wilson, former co-leader Dame Tariana Turia and other backers past and present have become increasingly vocal.

But Whānau Ora claimant Lady Tureiti Moxon’s rejoinder to Stuff, that “Māori have always been political”, seems the more pertinent point.

Decisions around which projects are given money and how much are inherently political – the coalition’s preference for universal funding over targeted initiatives is in large part due to the realities of policy making with New Zealand First in the mix – so any discussion about those decisions will inevitably involve an element of politics.

Dismissing policy complaints as merely playing politics does a disservice to the substance of the criticisms. In an election year when the party is vying to retain all seven Māori electorates, appearing aloof is a dangerous approach to take. 

Political theatre also managed to overshadow Ardern’s first day of events, with a Provincial Growth Fund announcement in Kaikohe trumped by Simon Bridges’ announcement that National would not work with New Zealand First after the 2020 election.

Ardern played the news with a dead bat, while New Zealand First leader Winston Peters – usually all too keen to take a swipe at Bridges – also exercised restraint.

“You can ask some other time but I’m not going to, how shall I say it, give this the currency…of respectability at this point in time.”

That is understandable, given the importance to the Government of focusing on the matters at hand for Māori.

And the news of how a $100 million fund to develop Māori land was being used in Northland was well received by a crowd of hundreds – with a particularly loud cheer for the news that rates arrears can be wiped clean, giving owners a chance to get out from under historical debts.

The hope will be that the Government’s other announcements this week are received in similar spirits.

But as Ardern herself acknowledged, for all that has been done so far, there is still much more to do – and the assessment of whether her government’s account with Māori is in surplus or deficit will go some way towards deciding how Labour fares at this year’s election.

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

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