Key Points:

Labour leader Phil Goff will walk on to Waitangi's Te Tii Marae this afternoon - the first time a Labour leader has ventured there since Helen Clark began boycotting it after a rough welcome in 2004.

Mr Goff and about 15 Labour MPs are expected at the lower marae following the welcoming of Prime Minister John Key and a contingent of National ministers and the Maori Party this morning.

The lower marae has been the centre of political discord in the past, most notably in 2004 when former National Party leader Don Brash had mud thrown at him and Helen Clark was jostled and shouted at by the crowd as she walked on.

Helen Clark was also pushed to tears on the lower marae when Titewhai Harawira challenged her right to speak as a woman.

Helen Clark avoided the marae ever since and instead attended festivities in the Waitangi grounds over the bridge.

Mr Goff said he understood why Helen Clark had avoided it "when the atmosphere was rather more turgid at Waitangi".

He said avoiding the marae was based on the belief that harmony would not be helped by seeing the Prime Minister subjected to "heckling and abuse".

"I think that judgment call was right, but I think things have moved on from then and I think Helen would agree with that. As Labour leader, I'm comfortable about going on to the lower marae."

Mr Goff will also attend the dawn service this year - another break from the practice of Helen Clark, who habitually avoided early starts, including Anzac Day and Waitangi Day dawn services.

He said he trusted the Ngapuhi leaders to ensure the day was a celebration of NZ's nationhood as well as a chance for debate over the Treaty.

Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples said it was a day to reflect on the relationship between Maori and the Crown. "Right now I think it's looking good."

However, the latest unemployment numbers are due out today and will serve as a reminder of the challenges the partnership faces in the recession.

Mr Goff has pledged to set about rebuilding Labour's constituency and attending the lower marae is likely to be part of that.

It puts paid to a period when Helen Clark labelled the foreshore and seabed protesters "haters and wreckers" and said the Maori Party were "last cab off the rank" before the 2005 election.

Treaty settlements had also stalled until Michael Cullen took over the portfolio in 2007, pushing through major claims.

Mr Goff said: "My hope is that at Waitangi and elsewhere you can have your debate and your discussion; it doesn't need to be abusive and it shouldn't be abusive."

Mr Key will also attend a Maori leaders' meeting in Waitangi, where the economy and Mr Key's announcement of tax relief for smaller businesses are likely to be discussed.

Dr Sharples said it would also allow for debate over National's proposed constitutional review, which would include the place of the Treaty of Waitangi and the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Mr Key has so far been warmly welcomed among Maori.

Maori sovereignty group Te Ata Tino Toa sent Prime Minister John Key a tino rangatiratanga T-shirt - addressed to Hone Kei, Pirimia - in appreciation after he agreed a Maori flag could fly on future Waitangi Days.