Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was formally welcomed on to the Upper Marae at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds yesterday. She made a historic speech.

The last speaker from the mana whenua made a point of greeting the Prime Minister's partner as "Clark Gable". He got a big laugh, although it wasn't entirely clear if he'd made a joke or a mistake. The real Clarke Gayford, sitting there in a suit and crisp white shirt, newly gifted pounamu hanging from his neck, took it very well.

There's a back road into the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a gravel ribbon that winds up through bush and over the groomed hills. Away from the bustling Paihia foreshore and the tents and flags and foodstalls of Te Tii Marae, everything up on the back hills yesterday was still and silent. The dust held low by heavy overnight dew, the fog out on the water hanging heavily around the big navy ship and a single cruise liner. It was impossibly beautiful.

And dramatic. At 10am the prime ministerial entourage swept around the corner of the Treaty House to confront the whare runanga, barely 50m away. Jacinda Ardern in the middle, serious face, all in black, flanked by the senior men of her Government in their good suits. And waiting for her, an elderly woman in a wheelchair, wearing white.

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Ardern broke ranks and went over with a warm smile to press her hands around the white lace gloves of the woman, who peered up from behind her dark glasses. It was Titewhai Harawira, the veteran activist.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Waitangi for the Powhiri at the Upper Marae during Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Dean Purcell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Waitangi for the Powhiri at the Upper Marae during Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Dean Purcell

Protest was absent from Waitangi yesterday, and you don't need to have a view on the rights or wrongs of the protests there, year after year, to recognise that history is alive and progressing.

Yesterday was Ardern's first chance to say, formally and in public, to all of us, this is who we are now. To note that the relationship of Maori to Pakeha, of tangata whenua to everyone else, is the great defining project of this nation. To explain what she thinks that means and what she wants to do about it.

The wero, the challenge at the start of the powhiri, was especially ferocious. But the full impact of the occasion was manifest later, when Ardern became our first woman Prime Minister granted the right to speak from the porch of the whare runanga. She said, "We did not come just for the beauty of the North. We came because there is work to do."

She told a personal story, of how her parents took the family to Waitangi once, and Jacinda was given the job of taking a photo of them. And just as she did so, her parents did that worst, most embarrassing thing of all, they kissed. "Passionately."

The challenge from a Maori warrior at Waitangi for the Powhiri at the Upper Marae during Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Dean Purcell
The challenge from a Maori warrior at Waitangi for the Powhiri at the Upper Marae during Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Dean Purcell

Ardern said she wanted her own child to know the history and the meaning of the place, and how lucky they would be to call themselves a citizen of Aotearoa.

She talked about "what we value". Manakitanga, the spirit of generosity and caring. Kaitiakitanga, or guardianship. The importance of speaking kanohi ki te kanohi, or face to face.

"We don't seek perfection," she said. "Frank and open disagreement is a sign of health."

She pointed, from the porch where she stood, across the lawn to the Treaty House. "That is the distance between us," she said. And she listed the ways in which it is measured: unemployment, mental health, housing, incarceration.

This was her moment. "I believe in the power to change," she said. "We as a Government know the failings, but we won't always know how to change. We will come to you, to ask. No marae will be too small.

"And I ask you now, to ask us what we have done. You must hold us to account."

Ardern has the leadership skill that John Key had: She instils confidence.

Waitangi Powhiri for dignitaries including the Prime Minister on the Treaty Grounds. Photo / John Stone
Waitangi Powhiri for dignitaries including the Prime Minister on the Treaty Grounds. Photo / John Stone

It's the thing that allows us to take risks - to employ and invest, buy and sell, aim high and go harder. Confidence makes the economy go round.

It also stops us being scared. Of people who are different, of what we don't understand, of losing what we value. Confidence lets us look outwards and it gives us hope. It binds us as a community.

The promise of the new Government, expressed in all the pomp and rhetoric of Waitangi, is that we can, and must, and will, make ourselves into a better community. We don't know if it's true. We have no idea. But it may be. The moment feels historic.

No marae too small. And no school. An hour or so later, Ardern was at nearby Paihia Primary School, as Year 8 student Reitu McKibbon stood in the hot sun to sing the karanga and welcome her into the hall.

Paihia School is 200 students, which makes it very small by Auckland standards yet one of the biggest schools in the North. Ardern spoke directly to and for the children, and they sang for her.

Young Waka crew at Waitangi for the Powhiri at the Upper Marae during Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Dean Purcell
Young Waka crew at Waitangi for the Powhiri at the Upper Marae during Waitangi celebrations. Photo / Dean Purcell

You want to see what chance we have that Ardern is right? Go to a primary school and watch them do a powhiri. The way they sing, the way they embrace the moves, taking them into their bodies and then giving it all back to you. There is joy in what they do, and pride, and love. It's for what they are doing, and for each other, and for their guests. The beauty of the culture, the thrill of doing it together, the rewards of sharing.

NZ First's Shane Jones spoke at that powhiri on the Treaty grounds. He recited a chant that spoke of a time when a great malevolence is overcome and there is an overarching rainbow, the morning star shines and the rays of the sun. Food will be abundant, dialogue will follow and the people will flourish. The moon goddess will sleep because the world will be bathed in daylight.

Jacinda Ardern isn't promising all that. But something has changed.

As for Clark Gable, he's the guy who got told tomorrow is another day. That's wrong. The new day is today. We're in it now.