People say the darnedest things. Jacinda Ardern got called a kōtuku, the sacred white heron, in the pōwhiri on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi yesterday, and there she was, dressed all in black, with Titewhai Harawira sitting next to her all in gleaming feathery white.

"Once the kōtuku appears," explained the speaker, "it has a purpose."

And then he ran with the metaphor, referring to her pregnancy a year ago and the mauri, the spirit, that was in her. That's what you get for being a kōtuku.

Someone getting a little carried away in the moment? I thought the speaker was saying two important things, neither of which meant the PM has now achieved mythical status.

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One: Respect. And two: He was telling her, don't you get this wrong. As far as we're concerned, the duty you have to not get this wrong is a sacred duty. Because too often, the leaders who've come before you — they did get it wrong.

He called on all the MPs present to join the task of lifting Māori out of poverty.

The significance yesterday was all in the civility. That's a difficult thing, sometimes, when it's easier to obsess about the conflict. Don Brash was rudely treated. The protesters who did it would say he's been treating them rudely — refusing to listen, using his unfailing politeness as a shield for his bigotry — for years. But there wasn't much new to learn.

On the upper marae, there was. Simon Bridges made an excellent speech, and the limits of co-operation were quietly but clearly tested.

"Etched in the sky, etched in the land, etched in the soul of the people," Bridges declared, in te reo, in a ringing declaration. It's the full quote of the well-known "What is most important? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata, the people, the people, the people."

And he ended with the best bit: "Behold the breath of life."

Bridges is Ngāti Maniapoto and his mihi was delivered with enormous pride. The first Māori leader of a major political party, his first time as leader at Waitangi.

He also said, "The Prime Minister has said this must be a year of delivery and I couldn't agree more. Getting hold of some of Shane Jones' funds, that's magic. But our people need a plan."

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The proposal to finish Treaty settlements by 2025 was a part of it.

The theme of the pōwhiri, officially, was political unity of purpose, as symbolised by the joint walk-on of the parties. Still, speakers from all the four parties made a point of distinguishing themselves.

Simon Bridges faces a toa (warrior) during the pōwhiri for dignitaries yesterday. Photo / Michael Craig
Simon Bridges faces a toa (warrior) during the pōwhiri for dignitaries yesterday. Photo / Michael Craig

Winston Peters was the wittiest. "As I keep saying to my elders opposite, who are fast diminishing in number, we have got to see it in ourselves. We have to stand up."

Just making handouts is not the NZ First way. Actually, it's not the way of any of the parties, not these days.

"Going forward with responsibility and purpose," said Peters. "That's the thing." Just in case anyone got the wrong idea about what the Provincial Growth Fund was for.

"Our aspirations should not be political," Ardern declared in her speech. Later in the day I asked her what that meant. Could the principle of working jointly lead to any structural reform in the way Parliament works?

She didn't think so, or at least she didn't suggest anything. She named individual policies where MPs do work together across the divide.

But in a larger sense? Did she think there was much chance for consensus in Corrections? No. Education or housing? No. But with domestic violence, she said, she could not see why that needed to be party political.

I asked her what she most wanted, at the end of her first term, to be able to look back on with a proper sense of long-term achievement. That is, achievement gained by a cross-party consensus that would hold for the future. She named two areas: poverty reduction and climate change.

Peeni Henare, Cabinet minister, member of Ngapuhi's famous Henare family, made the last speech yesterday morning, before the Prime Minister herself. The words of the waiata they sang afterwards were translated. It went like this: "Oh beautiful woman with a full heart and a peaceful soul, the matriarch of the world."

Symbolism, especially at Waitangi, is immensely important. It gives depth and shape to our yearnings and our sense of who we are.

But that doesn't mean every symbolic note is the right one. It's hard enough being a kōtuku, I would have thought.