Bill English has praised the Ratana commemorations as one of the best parts of Maoridom after leading the Government onto the Ratana Pa for the first time as Prime Minister.

English received a warm welcome at the first big Maori event of the year this afternoon, where Ratana Church elders said they were eager to hear from the country's new leader. They extended an invitation to English to attend the event a day early after he said it clashed with the first Cabinet meeting of the year.

"We made a decision to welcome you here to Ratana," Ratana's senior secretary Piri Rurawhe said. "And I'll tell you why - to give our people an opportunity to meet and greet the new Prime Minister of New Zealand and to listen to what you have planned for the next 12 months, irrespective of whether it's an election year or not."

While noting that "we are not always going to agree", Rurawhe said all were welcome at the pa "irrespective of the colour of their skin".


Led by the local brass band, English walked onto the pa near Wanganui with five ministers and 10 National MPs, including Whanganui MP Chester Borrows - a delegation he later boasted was "bigger than New Zealand First" and "almost as big as the Labour Party".

His arrival was uneventful compared to his first visit in 2002 - the first by a National Party leader. On that occasion, he made an embarrassing gaffe by arriving an hour later and keeping one of Maoridom's most important leaders, Tuwharetoa paramount chief Tumu te Heuheu waiting.

English said today he had first attended Ratana as "the leader of a failing Opposition" and that the church had been "as welcome then as they are now".

Today's visit also marked a change from last year's event, when the atmosphere was tense because of opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership and security levels were increased.

English began his speech at the pa by speaking in fluent Maori, without notes, for around three minutes. Speaking to reporters later, he said he picked up "bits and pieces" of Maori during his time in Government but could only understand "half of what's said".

Explaining his decision to attend Ratana but not Waitangi next week, he said the Ratana event was more respectful.

"As you have seen here today, the best of tikanga is good for New Zealand, it's good for New Zealanders to see it, it's such a warm and positive and hospitable way of business."

Like Key last year, English will spend Waitangi Day in Auckland. He decided against attending the official event in the Far North because he would not have been allowed to speak at the powhiri at Te Tii Marie.

English would not say whether he would return to Waitangi in future years. But he said it was not the only place to discuss issues affecting iwi, and denied that he was shying away from debate around the Treaty of Waitangi by not attending.

The Maori Party delegation, including co-leaders Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, will be welcomed at Ratana later this afternoon. Mana Movement leader Hone Harawira, who in talks about a merger with the Maori Party, will also be there.

In a symbolic gesture, members of the Kingitangi movement will come on to the pa alongside the Maori parties. Though the Kingitanga is traditionally aligned with Labour, King Tuheitia last year criticised both Labour and New Zealand First at last year's Ratana commemorations and has effectively pledged his support to the Maori Party.

Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First will pay their respects at Ratana tomorrow.