“Unconsciously inferior” is how Ngāti Hine leader and Waitangi National Trust chairman Pita Tipene describes the way many Māori feel.

He recalls growing up as a young Māori boy in the North and being shy about many aspects of who he was and not wanting to speaking his own language.

But Tipene says the announcements Jacinda Ardern and her 15-strong Māori caucus delivered at Waitangi this year will finally start to shift the mindsets of Pākehā around how they view Māori people and their history.

Racism and unconscious bias are alive and well in New Zealand but from June next year everyone has a public holiday centred on Matariki – the start of the Māori new year – and that creates a conversation that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

It’s also a far cry from celebrating the Queen’s birthday or a meaningless regional day off.

Tipene says it “goes to the heart of instilling pride and belonging in Māori people’’.

The same goes for the introduction of Māori history in schools and the protection of Māori local government wards making them equal to any other ward.

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson says most of those things wouldn’t have happened under any other Pākehā government. In the case of the Māori wards he says he has been driving that conversation since as far back as 2001, to no avail.

“Some people might say it’s cosmetic, but we would have got massacred if we hadn’t pushed through some of these changes.’’

He also says there’s a Māori renaissance underway and increasingly those living in urban areas, like South Auckland, are finding a new pride in their culture and language, which means things like a Matariki holiday resonate.

But what about the basics?

In a country as developed as New Zealand you would think access to affordable healthcare and a warm and dry house wouldn’t be much to ask.

Yet for a number of New Zealanders, many Māori, it is – and neither the Government nor iwi leaders appeared to be talking at great length about it.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has spent her four years in the top job referring to them as ‘decades-long challenges’.

In 2018 she came to Waitangi and asked Māori to hold her to account.

But there appears to be a discrepancy between what Māori say are their biggest day-to-day worries and what is debated and discussed between iwi leaders and Government ministers at the annual forum in Waitangi.

ACT Party leader David Seymour picked up on this point but directed his criticism at Ardern, saying there were far greater issues facing Māori than the need for a public holiday.

Willie Jackson, who has spent years working in Auckland with grassroots Māori agencies, has in the past been critical of the forum, saying its elitist.

Now a Government minister, he attends the meetings (this year’s was virtual) and told Newsroom of course Māori prioritise a warm and dry house, good health and employment – they’re issues that will always remain.

But he says the meetings are not solely about that, and much of the focus was acknowledging what has been done –  for example, progress on resolving the controversial land dispute at Ihumātao, Māori wards, history in schools and a Matariki holiday.

But here in Northland poverty is very real.

You only need to drive 30 minutes from Waitangi to Moerewa to see the impact unemployment, imprisonment and drug addiction is having on whānau.

Tipene says iwi leaders do raise those issues but the imperatives at the forum can sometimes be quite different.

While iwi are increasingly more prominent they’re still building their capacity and capability, “so can’t be all things to all people’’, he says.

“In many cases iwi are focusing on building themselves and prioritizing just a few issues, because if we can get those right then there will be a rising tide on all other issues.’’

Protest mostly replaced by robust debate

Another missing piece is the protests that used to hīkoi to Waitangi in such large numbers, which have mostly disappeared.

Moving the political talks away from Te Tii – the controversial lower marae – in 2018 has helped eliminate a lot of the tension.

The Labour Māori caucus returned to Te Tii this year for a pōwhiri for the first time since 2017 and while Ardern didn’t join, she’s open to doing so if or when she’s invited, which could be the case next year.

Jackson says the whole protest element has simmered and there’s more of a shift towards working with the Government.

Many who take part in the Iwi Chairs Forum have previously been activists and Jackson says they continue to “hammer” on one side whilst also working with the Government.

Ardern says criticising and calling the Government out on its progress isn’t the “flavour” of the meetings she has with the forum.

For Tipene, Waitangi is a chance to properly engage with ministers, like Housing Minister Megan Woods, on home turf.

He says having so many ministers in Te Tai Tokerau for several days allows iwi leaders to chat and brainstorm over a coffee or lunch, without having to travel to Wellington for what is inevitably a brief 30-minute chat.

That access is priceless, he says.

Parliament resumes in Wellington today and Waitangi will quickly seem a lifetime ago for MPs.

Ardern has deemed it the year of the vaccine, and while Covid-19 will hang over the country for some time yet, it didn’t put much of a halt on Waitangi events.

With the exception of the dawn service being held completely outside on the mahau of Te Whare Runanga, everything else went ahead as planned.

Ardern used her speech from the mahau this year to talk about clouds above and new ones looming.

While Covid-19 is one of them, growing inequality for Māori has been casting a shadow for much longer.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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