Key Points:

John Key attended his first significant hui as National's leader yesterday and used the event at Ratana to underscore his desire for the party to build a stronger relationship with Maori.

Mr Key arrived at Ratana, near Wanganui, late morning and engaged in a spot of volleyball with a group of young people before being welcomed on to the marae to commemorate the birthday of the prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.

Accompanied by about a dozen MPs, Mr Key looked nervous and appeared to be reciting his short mihi to himself as he sat waiting to give it.

He was told by Ratana speaker Ruia Aperahama that Maori had been used as "a ping pong ball" by politicians.

Labour had been "brilliant" at coming up with policies for Maori, but often lacked the courage to see them through.

National had at times been "terrible" for Maori, but otherwise displayed more courage than Labour, Mr Aperahama said.

National had, for example, built the houses at Ratana Pa in the 1950s and 60s when Labour wouldn't.

Mr Key responded by saying the houses had been built with strong foundations and he believed it was symbolic.

He reiterated that National under his leadership wanted a tolerant and inclusive society and recognised that Maori as tangata whenua had a "special place" in New Zealand.

The party wanted a relationship based on strength, trust, integrity and robust debate with Maori that would "pass the test of time".

Mr Key warned those gathered to be "wary" of Labour's claims Maori had made socio-economic progress.

"For Maori there is still much work to be done."

The crowd warmed to him, although his attempts to say "tena koutou" prompted Ngati Whatua's Jesse Pene to wonder "how do you get kutu [nits] out of koutou?"

To Mr Pene's ear, Mr Key was repeatedly saying "that nit".

Mr Key was later invited to sit on the Ratana paepae (bench).

Such an invitation hasn't been extended to another National leader for some time at Ratana and was a sign Mr Key's speech was appreciated - although some observers noted former National leaders had typically left straight after being welcomed, leaving no time to extend an invitation.

Prime Minister Helen Clark arrived later with a large contingent of ministers and MPs and declared she was "optimistic" about the future of Maoridom.

She said she was proud to have halved unemployment for Maori and for all New Zealanders and said Maori access to education was improving.

She also praised the work of Maori TV, particularly the public service it had done with its extensive and inspired Anzac Day coverage.

However, she said more work had to be done in areas such as health and law and order.

Helen Clark delivered her speech from the Ratana paepae, which she has been invited to do for several years.

The Maori Party MPs did not go on as a group, instead arriving individually.

Co-leader Tariana Turia was in the group which performed the Ratana karanga for National and Labour.

She told the media the event was not about politics, but remembering the message of the prophet "that through upholding our spiritual beliefs and honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi, our people will advance".

She said, however, that while there was much positive talk about Maori, their median income was still much lower than for Pakeha.

While political speeches dominated much of the day it was the big contingent from Tainui led by King Tuheitia that drew the largest crowd.

Hundreds thronged to catch a glimpse of the new king and to watch the pageantry around his welcome.

He looked comfortable, despite having arrived back from Japan only hours earlier.

Ratana spokesman Wayne Johnston said his mother Dame Atairangikaahu had always drawn crowds and the support showed the strong relationship between Ratana and the Kingitanga.

Labour links

* The Ratana movement, which has religious and secular arms, has had a close relationship with Labour ever since the founder met Michael Joseph Savage back in 1936.

* It was a strong force in the 1920s and '30s as a rallying point for Maori identity and call for political reform.

* Today, 134th anniversary celebrations of Ratana's birthday and a church service at the Ratana temple will be held.