You know it's an election year when politics grabs centre stage at Treaty of Waitangi commemorations in the Bay of Islands.

The 180th anniversary of the Treaty signing got off to a politically charged start yesterday as Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges used his speech to hammer the Government on its record of delivering for Northland Māori.

The politicians arrive at the Treaty Grounds, escorted as always by Ngāpuhi matriarch Titewhai Harawira. Photo / Michael Cunningham
The politicians arrive at the Treaty Grounds, escorted as always by Ngāpuhi matriarch Titewhai Harawira. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Usually the main players at Waitangi at least pretend to put politics aside for a few days but with an election just eight months' away the gloves — Bridges' first, then NZ First leader Winston Peters' — were off.

The pōwhiri for the Prime Minister and MPs is one of the key events at Waitangi each year and used to be the main flashpoint. However, since the ceremony was shifted from Te Tii Marae to the Treaty Grounds three years ago the only mudslinging has been among politicians.

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Budding photojournalist Neve Ardern Gayford, who turns 2 in June, took great delight in playing with a photographer's camera during the speeches. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Budding photojournalist Neve Ardern Gayford, who turns 2 in June, took great delight in playing with a photographer's camera during the speeches. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Another change was to hold one pōwhiri for all MPs instead of a separate welcome for each party.

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Taiaha line up waiting for the MPs to arrive. Photo / Michael Cunningham</note>
Taiaha line up waiting for the MPs to arrive. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Bridges stood alongside Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as the group was welcomed onto Te Whare Rūnanga (the carved meeting house) with rousing haka and three challenges from Ngāpuhi warriors.

National Party leader Bridges accepted the first challenge, followed by Greens co-leader James Shaw and finally Peters.

The most warmly received speech was by Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little, who spoke without notes entirely in te reo Māori, with only the slightest of stumbles.

Kaihoe (paddlers) perform a haka powhiri. Photo / John Stone
Kaihoe (paddlers) perform a haka powhiri. Photo / John Stone

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said he would henceforth be known as Anaru Iti (Andrew Little in te reo) and was an example of someone trying to cross the bridge to the Māori world, instead of expecting Māori to cross the bridge to the Pākehā world.

The first speaker, Isaiah Apiata of Whangārei, appealed directly to the Prime Minister to make dental visits free because many Māori struggled to afford treatment and paid the price with poor health; while Anaru Kira of Whangaroa called on Ardern and Bridges to recognise the Waitangi Tribunal's stage one report of the Northern Enquiry.

Ngāpuhi warriors lead a challenge for the Treaty Grounds' parliamentary visitors. Photo / John Stone
Ngāpuhi warriors lead a challenge for the Treaty Grounds' parliamentary visitors. Photo / John Stone

The report, released in 2014, found Ngāpuhi chiefs did not cede sovereignty when they signed the Treaty.

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In an apparent breach of protocol Mere Mangu, Ngāpuhi's new chairwoman, also gave a speech, leading to muttering and grumbling from the home people's seats.

In Ngāpuhi custom women are not supposed to speak on the marae atea. When Ardern gave her speech later it was from the porch of the meeting house.

Te Rūnanga-a-iwi o Ngāpuhi chairwoman Mere Mangu congratulates an emotional Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little after he gave an entire speech without notes in te reo Māori. Photo / John Stone
Te Rūnanga-a-iwi o Ngāpuhi chairwoman Mere Mangu congratulates an emotional Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little after he gave an entire speech without notes in te reo Māori. Photo / John Stone

The real talking point, however, was Bridges' no-holds-barred attack on what he called the Government's failure to deliver on Treaty settlements, Whānau Ora, charter schools and the gap between Māori and Pākehā.

He described the Provincial Growth Fund's Northland projects as ''trinkets'' and said what the region really needed to lift its economy was a four-lane highway from Auckland to Whangārei.

Peters was not on the speaking list but got to his feet to ''put the record straight'' and claim the highway would take 68 years to reach Whangārei at the former Government's rate of progress.

The National leader took flak from other speakers too — Shaw said he had ''debased this place with petty politics''— but was unapologetic, saying Waitangi was always political and the Government had to be held to account.

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Meanwhile, Ardern's speech focused on government achievements such as reduced Māori unemployment, thousands of apprenticeships for Māori and $1.4 billion in PGF projects, though she conceded there was more mahi (work) to be done.

''By our deeds you will know us,'' she said.

She also committed to a new national body for waka hourua (ocean-going canoes) to continue the work of the late Sir Hekenukumai Busby.

There were also moments of levity among the politicking, not least the happy laughter of Neve Ardern Gayford which punctuated the speeches.

The Prime Minister's daughter, who turns 2 in June, took great delight in a photo-journalist's camera as she played by the feet of the manuhiri (guests).