The Rātana commemorations acted as a chance for National leader Christopher Luxon to go on the attack over co-governance, and for new Labour leader Chris Hipkins to introduce himself to Māoridom. But above all, the day was about Jacinda Ardern’s farewell to the nation, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: Ahead of Tuesday’s annual celebrations at Rātana, the weather forecast predicted a chance of afternoon showers – but there was to be no raining on Jacinda Ardern’s parade.

And a parade it was, as the departing prime minister and her fellow Labour MPs were escorted onto the marae behind the traditional brass band as the sun beat down on their backs.

“If you’re going to leave, I say leave with a brass band,” Ardern later quipped to peals of laughter.

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That was just one of the many ways in which Rātana was a fitting way for Ardern to end her time in charge of Aotearoa.

In 2018, the township’s annual celebrations acted as a coming-out party for the nation’s newly elected leader, who had also just revealed her pregnancy to the world.

The relationship between Rātana and Labour dates back almost 90 years, meaning a friendly crowd was all but guaranteed – and so it proved, with throngs of people following her and asking for photos and hugs as she moved around the pā.

Ngāti Rangi spokesman Che Wilson, also the president of Te Pāti Māori, put his party allegiances aside to thank Ardern for the leadership she had shown through crises like the Christchurch terror attack and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is only right that on this day we say thank you…you were the right person to lead our nation.”

“Empathy and kindness, that is what the majority of Aotearoa New Zealand has shown to me… I leave with a greater love of Aotearoa and its people than when I started.”
– Jacinda Ardern

Kingitanga spokesperson Rahui Papa offered equally warm words, noting Ardern’s request at Waitangi that the Government be judged on its record. While Māori did still feel there was room for improvement, it was a pledge that the prime minister and her colleagues had proven they intended to deliver on, Papa said.

In a brief speech, delivered semi-reluctantly but with no realistic prospect of declining, Ardern tearfully thanked the crowd – and the country at large – for giving her “the greatest privilege of my life”.

While debate continues to swirl around the abundance of abuse that she received during her time as leader, the prime minister again sought to downplay its role in her decision to leave office early.

“Empathy and kindness, that is what the majority of Aotearoa New Zealand has shown to me… I leave with a greater love of Aotearoa and its people than when I started.”

The event was Ardern’s farewell, but also an introduction to new Labour leader and prime minister Chris Hipkins, although there was understandably less interest in his presence and remarks.

Ardern and Hipkins had shared a car on the two-hour ride to Rātana, with the new leader revealing he had received plenty of advice en route. Hipkins was less open about exactly what words of wisdom were passed on, although Ardern did reveal the most important one: “You do you.”

Hipkins’ speech was well-received, with the leader preemptively apologising for his poor te reo and promising to improve it – as well to visit as often as he could, and to continue Ardern’s work in improving the relationship between the Crown and Māori.

Christopher Luxon may have been speaking at Rātana, but the National leader was delivering his message to another audience altogether. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

National leader Christopher Luxon was also marking his first visit to Rātana atop his party, but in a markedly less favourable environment than that for Ardern and Hipkins.

At the 2020 election, National received a grand total of zero votes at Rātana’s polling station, and even as Luxon revives his party’s fortunes there is little chance of that tally increasing to any meaningful degree.

That helps explain the pointedly political nature of his remarks, and the sense he was speaking to an audience other than in front of him.

Papa’s plea that National “not be afraid of co-governance… of loosening the grip of power” went unheeded as Luxon went on the attack.

“I think it has been quite a divisive and immature conversation over recent years, and I personally think it’s because the Government hasn’t been upfront or transparent with the New Zealand people about where it’s going and what it’s doing,” he said.

He argued against “one system for Māori and another system for non-Māori”.

The remarks had faint echoes of former National leader Don Brash’s notorious Orewa speech in 2004, and may be an ill omen for the tone of this year’s election campaign.

It is too early to say whether Luxon is pivoting away from the more moderate stance he has taken in contrast to his predecessor Judith Collins’ ‘Demand the Debate’ campaign, and it is the economy which is still set to be at the forefront of National’s argument for change.

New Labour leader and incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins indicated he would pick up where Jacinda Ardern left off in improving the Crown-Māori relationship. Photo: Aaron Smale

But with Hipkins having conceded the Government must be clearer about what co-governance means in practice, National may hope to press its line of attack further at a moment when the new prime minister may be reconsidering exactly what form the policy should take.

Labour’s leader offered up the beginnings of what could prove a useful defence, speaking about his childhood living down the road from Lower Hutt’s Te Whiti Park at a time when some locals feared access would be taken away from them through Treaty settlements.

Instead, said Hipkins, a co-governance arrangement had led to the restoration of the bordering of the Waiwhetū stream, the improvement of park facilities, and “more young New Zealanders of all ethnicities play[ing] sport there than ever before”.

Providing real-world examples of where co-governance has already taken effect and proved a success should help to stop Kiwis catastrophising about nightmare scenarios, even if some will never be convinced.

An impending recession and an ongoing cost of living crisis are challenging enough for a new prime minister, and the more that Hipkins and his team can take the heat out of the co-governance debate, the easier it will be for them to focus on the economic headwinds.

All that policy work and political jousting lies ahead of Labour, National and the minor parties.

But not for Ardern: instead, she has a few months to focus on being the MP for Mt Albert, and then to a life outside of politics altogether.

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

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