Beautiful, horrible Waitangi. I hope it will be different this year.

I was there last year, for the first time in a long time, covering the politicians' arrival.

It is a heavenly place but its capacity to create horrible memories remains.

It didn't take much aggro from the young idiots at Te Tii Marae - and too much obeisance to them by senior police - to change my plans and head down to Auckland to see then Prime Minister Bill English speak at Bastion Point as a guest of Ngati Whatua on Waitangi Day itself.


It was a brilliant and inspiring event.

Last year Winston Peters refused to go onto Te Tii marae because the media had been banned from the grounds - a case of highly principled opportunism by Peters.

I talked to someone recently who was sitting behind Helen Clark the year she was reduced to tears in Te Tii and she said she had felt physically threatened inside the wharenui.

I was there the year Helen Clark had to sit through a diatribe at the dawn service in the Treaty Grounds by a woman from Gisborne claiming to be the true Prime Minister - and not a murmur of disapproval from any Nga Puhi there.

For years the Waitangi organisers and cultural advisers of prime ministers have told them that they can't go to Waitangi and not go to Te Tii Marae because, ironically, it would be an insult.

In 2015, when Te Tii started debating whether the Prime Minister should be allowed to speak, John Key took the sensible decision of saying "See ya later".

Bill English also took the sensible decision of following his example last year.

And finally, finally, something has changed at Waitangi. Te Tii has been written out of the script for the Prime Minister without too much objection from Nga Puhi. The aberrant dynamics of one marae was becoming a blight on the whole north.


It remains to be seen whether it inserts itself back in the 2018 Waitangi Day story.

Whether or not the changes had been made by the official organisers, Jacinda Ardern would have gone to Waitangi in her first year as Prime Minister – not least as a triumphant Labour leader having just won back all seven of the Maori seats.

It was the right decision for a new prime minister and being up there for five days sends a strong message that she is willing to put time and effort into the Crown-Maori relationship.

She needs to because Labour has a lot of ground to make up, particularly with iwi leaders.

She will be operating in three spheres at Waitangi: establishing a relationship with Nga Puhi in the interests of advancing a settlement by the biggest tribe in New Zealand; establishing a relationship with iwi leaders from across the country; and representing all of the people at ceremonies and events on Waitangi Day itself.

The latter will be the public exercise. But the relationship she begins with iwi leaders will be a critical one.

Bill English personally spearheaded the previous Government's relationship with iwi leaders, first as Finance Minister and then as Prime Minister.

It was a major feature of his work in government, although not a very public one.

It was that top-level contact with the organ-grinder that gave the Iwi Leaders Group its power as they regularly worked through complex issues such as freshwater management, and Resource Management Act changes.

It also meant the larger Iwi Chairs Forum (all leaders of all iwi) became a powerful group because its direct relationship with the Government was having major impact on policy such as the iwi participation clauses in the RMA.

They turned out not to be a bottom line for New Zealand First, remaining intact after the coalition negotiations, as did Whanau Ora.

Most of the work with iwi was done behind closed doors in the Beehive, and sometimes informally, between English and his senior adviser, Amohaere Houkamau, working with iwi leaders.

That work will now be undertaken under the aegis of a newly created portfolio, Crown/ Maori Relations, held by Kelvin Davis.

Davis does not have the same clout in the Government which will slow things down. And the fact that decision-making will be brought more formally into the Cabinet process will also slow it down.

But that is a plus and it should provide greater transparency than has been the case.

The Crown's relationship with iwi is an area in which Ardern needs to take a strong personal interest and she should insist on Winston Peters being closely involved as well.

He has made plenty of political capital as New Zealand First leader over the years bagging Maori elite or what he called "the Brown Table".

But as Deputy Prime Minister he has a higher duty to work closely with tribal chiefs who are playing as increasingly important role in the social and economic life of New Zealand.

Both Ardern and Peters may feel more comfortable dealing with issues such as housing, health, education and jobs and the opportunities for co-operation with iwi are expanding.

But they will not be able to avoid more fraught issues such as the freshwater claims – unless they want the matter decided by the courts.

Given the fact that New Zealand First insisted on a royalty being applied to exports of bottled water, Peters should be given the primary task of leading discussion with iwi over how that affects their claims.

It looked as though the Government might have a convenient excuse not to impose the royalty – and thereby avoid an ownership claim by Maori - because it would breach trade agreements.

It turns out, however, that that would apply only if the royalty was applied discriminantly to foreign owners of bottling plants and was not levied against exports by New Zealand owners.

Bill English will be avoiding such complex issues this Waitangi Day by heading to Bluff to share celebrations with Ngai Tahu.

Ardern will have a huge presence at Waitangi, and hopefully leave with no horrible memories after five days.

A bigger test will be how she is received after a year in office.