Bill English may not be going to Waitangi this year but he will lead the Government to Ratana today for the first time as Prime Minister.

And his entry to the first big Maori event in election year will be in the midst of some symbolic political choreography.

English will go on with Tuwharetoa and its paramount chief Sir Tumu te Heuheu.

Later in the afternoon, the official Maori Party delegation, including co-leaders Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, and president Tukoroirangi Morgan will be welcomed on alongside the Kingitanga and Hone Harawira's Mana Movement.

Maori Party Leaders, Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell at Ratana in 2015. Photo / NZME
Maori Party Leaders, Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell at Ratana in 2015. Photo / NZME

King Tuheitia won't be there because he is still recovering from a kidney transplant in November last year from his youngest son, Korotangi.

His oldest son, Whatumoana, is expected to attend.

Opposition parties, including Labour and New Zealand First, are paying their respects on Tuesday, the usual day for the annual birthday celebrations of founder Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.

Ratana accommodated the Government group a day earlier than usual because the first cabinet meeting of the year is Tuesday.

The Kingitanga is usually welcomed on before or after political parties, but never at the same time. Nanaia Mahuta, however, the Labour MP for Hauraki-Waikato, usually goes on with the Kingitanga, and is likely to today.

Morgan who is also an adviser to the king said going on with the Maori Party and Mana could be seen as an expression of solidarity with Maori political parties in line with the king's comments last year.

In August last year, King Tuheitia criticised Labour and New Zealand First during an unscripted part of his speech at Turangawaewae coronation celebrations.

"It really hurt me when the leader of the Labour Party says 'I'll never work with that Maori Party.' I'm not voting for them anymore," Tuheitia said.

Referring to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, King Tuheitia said: "New Zealand First, I don't know about those fellas."

Peters accused Morgan, who is also an adviser to the king, of using the king for political purposes.

Morgan, a former New Zealand First MP who abandoned the party during its split in coalition with National in 1998, was elected president of the Maori Party last July.

The Kingitanga and the Ratana Church have had close associations with the Labour Party in the past - which ended emphatically in 1996 when New Zealand First won all the Maori seats.

Labour faced criticism last year from Ratana speakers telling leader Andrew Little that he could not take Ratana for granted.

Little said he had heeded that and he and the Maori caucus had worked on strengthening the relationship with Ratana.

He described the Maori Party as "effectively the Maori branch of the National Party."

Asked if they would "last cab off the rank" if came to coalition building after this year's election, he said: "Certainly after Greens and New Zealand.

There's whole collection, Maori and United Future, if they are still there. So they are certainly down the pecking order, that's for sure."

English announced two weeks ago that he would not be going to Waitangi because he would not be allowed to speak at the powhiri at Te Tii Marae, and which is usually a chaotic occasion.

The decision mirrored John Key's last year for the same reason.

English was the first National Party leader to attend Ratana celebrations, in 2002.
Events there are more orderly and visitors are expected to speak.


What is the significance of Ratana?

The annual visit to the Ratana Pa, at a small settlement south of Wanganui, is to commemorate the birth date of the founder of the Ratana religious and political movement, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana. It also marks the start of the political year.

Who will be attending?
Bill English will visit the pa this afternoon for the first time as Prime Minister, accompanied by five National MPs. In a break from tradition, he is being welcomed at Ratana a day early to avoid a clash with Cabinet's first meeting tomorrow. Later in the afternoon the official Maori Party delegation will be welcomed alongside the Kingitanga and Hone Harawira's Mana Movement. Labour, NZ First, and the Greens will pay their respects tomorrow.

What can we expect?
The gathering takes on added significance in an election year as parties jostle for the Maori vote and position themselves for the Maori electorates.

The Kingitanga and the Ratana Church have traditionally been associated with Labour since an alliance in 1935, helping the party to win all of the Maori seats until 1996 when they were lost to NZ First. But last year King Tuheitia, who has close ties to Ratana, criticised Labour and NZ First during his speech at the pa. The Kingitanga's arrival at the pa today with the Maori Party and Mana could be seen as a sign of solidarity with those parties ahead of the election.