By all accounts, something changed at Waitangi this week. The most obvious was that the official Government party avoided a welcome at the nearest marae to the Treaty Ground.
The marae at Te Tii beach, a short walk from the hallowed ground, has been the cauldron of protests for many decades and its powhiri of welcome for politicians has often been preceded by a stormy welcome at its entrance. But until this year, prime ministers have believed protocol required them to call there on the day before attending ceremonies at the Treaty Ground.
Not so. Jacinda Ardern has proved they can bypass that difficult place. She must have made that decision with plenty of advice from Maori in her party and on the Waitangi National Trust Board which administers the Treaty Grounds. The decision was contested by a protest from Te Tii during one of Tuesday's services at the meeting house in the Grounds but Ardern's reception there this week suggests that overwhelmingly Maori approve of the new procedure.
At the Monday powhiri outside the meeting house, the Prime Minister became the first woman permitted to speak in the ceremony of welcome. This, too, was a point of protocol that seemed to matter very much — until it did not. Maori ceremonial oratory is traditionally a male performance with respected women sitting near enough to let a speaker know when his performance has gone on long enough. Let us hope that role is not lost now that women can do the oratory too.
These changes of protocol were made possible by a far more important change in Maori political allegiance. Labour went to Waitangi this year in possession of all the Maori electorates for the first time since the formation of an independent party more than a decade ago. The Maori Party lost its last seat at the election in September.
With it has gone the idea that Maori want a separate political identity in New Zealand. That notion has proven to be limited to a few activists for the Maori Party and its far left spin-off, Mana. The vast majority of Maori voters left their party votes with Labour even when they gave four or five electorate seats to the Maori Party, which steadily lost the seats after it supported a National government.
Their verdict is undeniable, Labour is the party that represents the real interests and aspirations of Maori and those are the same as the interests and aspirations of all the lower paid or unemployed and underprivileged in New Zealand.
Ardern wisely chose to interpret the affection for her at Waitangi as an expectation of results from her Government. Child poverty will be disproportionately occurring in Maori homes. If more money is all those households need, her Government will need to ensure it gets to the children. Health care, nutrition and home heating help, too, will need to reach those who need them.
The Maori Party believed these problems were best tackled by Maori self-help, whanau ora, but that does not seem to be Labour's approach. It has brought Maori back inside a mainstream party and it may be a long time before an independent party is taken seriously again.