Jacinda Ardern says she expects to return to Waitangi "no matter what" after a peaceful powhiri on her first appearance as Prime Minister.

Speaking during the powhiri at the upper marae, Ardern pledged to return to Waitangi and asked those present to hold her to account for her promises when she did.

She said afterward she had been to Waitangi in years when it was peaceful and when there was protest.

"That's part of our national day. So my hope and expectation is that I can keep coming no matter what."

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Ardern was granted speaking rights on the marae despite local custom being for only men to speak.

She said she knew it was a privilege and hoped one day to prove she had earned that right to speak.

"Hold us to account. Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here.

"Only you can tell me when I have done that."

Ardern said she would take her lead in the future from the Waitangi organising committee on whether to go to Te Tii or the upper marae.

Young waka crew members at the upper marae yesterday. Photo / Dean Purcell
Young waka crew members at the upper marae yesterday. Photo / Dean Purcell

While the leaders of the Green Party and New Zealand First were also out in force at Waitangi, this is the third year in a row that the National Party leader has not gone. Bill English will mark the day in Bluff.

National MP Steven Joyce defended English's no-show, saying there was merit in spreading about the country for commemorations.

"He's committed as we are to having celebrations around the country as well as here and that's something we've seen over the last couple years, which has seen a better tone to the whole celebrations.

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"I think that's something a lot of New Zealanders who aren't able to come to the north would appreciate.

"I think the fact he is in the South Island is very good," the MP said.

Joyce showed little appetite for a return to Te Tii Marae soon.

"That's something that might happen in the future. But you'd have to say that today has been much more of a celebration, a more unified celebration, and that's been a positive thing and I think we should think about that and hang on to it."

NZ First leader Winston Peters said the new venue had been a "serious relief and a serious success".

Jacinda Ardern greets dignitaries at the upper marae. Photo / Dean Purcell
Jacinda Ardern greets dignitaries at the upper marae. Photo / Dean Purcell

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said the peace was partly because Maori were giving the new Government a grace period before making up their minds. It would depend on how the Government dealt with issues such as the TPP, mining and drilling and Maori rights issues.

"Our people are very resilient and have been protesting for 178 years about the things of disparity against them. If there is not significant change, the peace - whether it is up there or down at Te Tii - won't stay."

Fox said Waitangi was the litmus test for a government and Ardern's speech had delivered "hope".

"The more unhappy we are, the more protests there are. Today was a day of manaakitanga."

Ardern pledged to work on the disparities between Maori and other groups in areas such as poverty, suicide and incarceration gaps. She said a focus on those was needed.

She urged people to "bring me solutions".

"We don't have all the answers on our own. This is not about Government coming and imposing solutions. We know what the problems are, now we've got to work on them together."