How will the Prime Minister deliver on Māori's list of requests, asks Simon Wilson.

This is how it goes with Jacinda Ardern. She's at a meeting with the Māori wardens of the Far North, at their headquarters on the road to Kaikohe. It's the day before Waitangi Day and she has five ministers with her, plus other MPs. She's come to listen. They've come to ask for things.

Ardern was here a year ago, had what they all say was a "good old korero", but this time it's different. The wardens' work is governed by statute, which means they have a minister, who is Nanaia Mahuta. She's been with them all morning, ahead of the PM's arrival, workshopping, helping them work out exactly what they want to ask for.

So after the pōwhiri, they get up, one by one, shuffle forward a little, and explain themselves. The Māori wardens were set up after the war, with a focus on temperance, and before the great Māori migration to the cities. Now, they work in the midst of a mental health crisis, urban poverty, family dysfunction, drugs and more, all of which demand a rethink of who they are and what they are supposed to do. Their statute is no longer fit for purpose.


Te Rau Clarke, who chairs the session, and Mahuta herself, in conversation later, both stress that it's not about money. Perhaps better to say, not just about money.

"As watene," says one of the speakers, using the te reo word for wardens, "we have a lot of taonga. We would like you to understand what we do."

They need more vans, better working relations with government agencies, better training and new governance. All of it, so they can be better at doing the work already expected of them.

Another speaker says they need a new act, "and if you don't do it we'll write our own".

I rode to and from this meeting with the prime minister, in the minivan she used last week to travel around Northland. Baby seat in the front right corner behind the driver, although the baby herself wasn't with us. Clean car aroma, various aides busy on their mobiles. Or catching up on Facebook, I suppose. You wouldn't know.

It was mid-afternoon, blindingly hot. Ardern was still wearing the black dress with a black latticework yoke she wore at 7am for the official powhiri on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi, though she had changed into flats. She talked, the whole time, with her trademark enthusiasm. Of course, she said, things are going very well. There's a lot more work to be done. She's proud of what they've done already.

Perhaps no politician would say any different. But is it different with Ardern? When we got to our destination, she stayed in the van to finish a long answer to a question, then jumped out, already focused entirely on the wardens.

Each warden who speaks is calm, friendly, polite. It's obvious they're a bit in thrall to the PM and you could mistake this for a routine meet-and-greet. But it's not that. They're anxious. However much they might admire Ardern, they don't assume she's their saviour. If anything, it's the reverse: they fear they will be forgotten.

When they finish, there's a silence. It becomes awkward. Te Rau Clarke eventually steps forward and says, "You're more than welcome to respond, prime minister."

She jumps to her feet. "No pressure," she says, flashing that grin.

She introduces all the MPs present. "Everyone knows Willie," as Willie Jackson tries out a bashful face and they all chortle. "And Matua Kelvin, of course." The party's deputy leader, Kelvin Davis, is also the local Te Tai Tokerau MP. She makes a point of talking up the value of the NZ First ministers present, Tracey Martin and Ron Mark.

Then come the platitudes. "We'll take on board everything you've shared today." The employment initiatives announced the day before in Kaikohe, with Jackson, get a mention. She talks, serious face now, about that kōrero last year and how she appreciates the work they've done today to make their concerns explicit. She lists their requests back to the group.

Mahuta watches from the tangata whenua side, always hawk-like, the details in a folder under her arm. Ardern adds that there is "much mahi to be done".

Then she spreads her arms wide and says, "A problem shared is a problem halved." The big grin is back. "Together we can do amazing things."

And she walks over, crooks her elbow to Henare Hape, at 85 the oldest Māori warden in Northland, and escorts him into the building for some kai.

Was that brilliant or preposterous?

Ardern is the first prime minister to have visited the northern Māori wardens. Of course they love her for that. But although she hasn't come to announce anything – it's too soon for that – they are looking for assurances.

The problem for the PM is that there's a bigger picture here. What should the role of Māori wardens be today? If their work has evolved in certain directions, is that necessarily a good thing worthy of more support? How can they best fit into the complex web of welfare agencies and services? The answers are far from obvious, or easy.

Ardern didn't promise to solve their problems. Fundamentally, like many other politicians, she is popular but not populist. That's the dividing line: never trust anyone who promises salvation. The trick of politics isn't to promise everything but to make people think you're worth supporting even when you don't.

So Ardern bestowed her usual mix of charm and caution. She and Mahuta, and several other ministers, have some hard talking to do.

It's very clear exactly what's at stake, though. In another year, Ardern has to come back with a good plan in place. These are people who have been let down before: if she doesn't meet and manage their expectations well, she risks that they will turn their backs.

That's what being a new government after your first year means. We're all like the Māori wardens, with high expectations to be met and managed, and it all has to happen this year, before the government locks itself into campaign mode in 2020.

And every problem is like the Māori warden problem: the solutions have to form part of a mesh of interconnected solutions to many other problems. When you're a government dedicated to transformation, as Ardern repeatedly says hers is, you're not supposed to think merely in terms of maintaining the status quo. No quick patch solutions.

Is it weakness that Ardern offered only charm and caution? Not really. Most politicians would love to have the skills to do that as well as she does. And though it seems unlikely that spreading your arms and saying "Together we can do amazing things!" would work with every audience, perhaps she judged that crowd well.

There's a revealing story about the police and social services doing the rounds in Northland. The police busted a bunch of meth dealers not so long ago. They went through the dealers' phones and got the names of everyone they'd been selling to. As they say, you'll never guess what happened next.

Jacinda Ardern shares a hongi with a Māori warden at the organisation's annual get-together at Haruru Falls. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Jacinda Ardern shares a hongi with a Māori warden at the organisation's annual get-together at Haruru Falls. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The police went to the Ministry of Social Development and told them, here are the names of some people who need your help. MSD is now providing that help.

In the van I asked Ardern if she'd heard this story and she said yes.

"It's a good story, isn't it? And it's in line with Government thinking. The dealers are criminals and we come down hard on them. But we offer support to the users."

It's not a practice that began with this government, though. In public, politicians argue across the divide about who's better at handling crime and who's more helpful to victims. On the ground, both sides have sanctioned some real changes in the way police and social services now work.

Not that it's problem solved or anything. But things are changing.

I asked the PM if the spirit of togetherness shown at Waitangi by the political parties might also infect Parliament. Surprisingly, she didn't think so.

For their pōwhiri, the four parties present all came on to the paepae in front of the whare rūnanga together. Labour and National, along with the Greens and NZ First. It was the first time that's happened. National leader Simon Bridges was given the honour of being the first representative of the manuhiri, the visitors, to receive the challenge and, in his speech, he made a point of praising Kelvin Davis. Jacinda Ardern, in hers, thanked Bridges for joining the co-operative approach.

But the co-operation was limited. When the PM and colleagues served breakfast to the multitude on Waitangi Day itself, it was strictly a Government affair. National MPs were not welcome to apron up.

So no structural changes to the way Parliament works? That would be something, wouldn't it? A bit less of the squabbling of spoilt children – a thing that Ardern herself has tended not to participate in? She said no.

What about some of the big areas in desperate need of reform, where there might be a consensus? The clash of ideas is important to politics, but should it always be the way? Sometimes it prevents progress, even when most people agree on the progress they want.

Ardern said she agreed with that, and they'd achieved consensus with the Child Poverty Reduction Bill. "Every MP voted for it. I was very pleased about that. Well, every MP except one." She meant David Seymour from Act.

She also said there was "a joint working approach around long-term strategies on domestic violence". That's true. And they were hoping for consensus to establish the Climate Change Coalition. That seems likely too. Both those initiatives, as it happens, are led by Green Party MPs: undersecretary Jan Logie and minister James Shaw, respectively.

Anything else? She said not really.

What about in Corrections? Don't most MPs get it now that to do prison reform means to address mental health? "I don't think so. I think we're quite far apart on that sort of thing."

Schools? Again, no.

Jacinda Ardern, the first Prime Minister to visit the Māori wardens, escorts warden Henare Hape. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Jacinda Ardern, the first Prime Minister to visit the Māori wardens, escorts warden Henare Hape. Photo / Peter de Graaf

I said I wasn't thinking so much about reporting to parents or curriculums or governance – all areas where there's much important political debate to be had – but their role in the community. In some parts of the country, schools are the most – perhaps only – functional institutions they have.

Doesn't that suggest they might develop a stepped-up role in the community? Operating as a services hub, perhaps? And wouldn't that be the kind of thing it was possible to get general agreement on?

Ardern said she couldn't see it.

Okay, she wasn't going to comment on things that haven't happened. But in education, bipartisan co-operation does exist: National MP Nikki Kaye's bill to introduce compulsory second language learning has gained wide support; the idea of having all kids learn some New Zealand history seems popular too.

I suggested that housing might be another area for agreement – despite the furious mudslinging about who was responsible for what parts of the crisis. Didn't everyone agree we needed a lot more houses, built well and more cheaply?

The PM talked about supply and affordability and so on, and did not seem to think there would ever be agreement on anything to do with housing. We moved on.

There's no popular movement to reform the bear pit elements of Parliament. But who doubts that any reasonable attempt to do it would be widely supported?

What was the co-operative spirit at Waitangi about, if it isn't going to flow through to the way our political leaders conduct their discourse? The feelgoods of Waitangi are real, as an experience, and they mean a lot for the country. But for the politicians and how they do their work, are they just for show?

This is the year. Last February she asked the people of Te Tai Tokerau to hold her to account.

"Next year," she says now, "the whole country will be holding me to account."

She's sitting in the front row of seats in the van, next to the baby seat. I'm in the row behind, so I'm leaning forward to talk to her over the seat backs and she's twisted back to talk to me. When there's a baby, even when the baby isn't there, you have to do things differently.

That's our great unspoken experiment right now: how does government work when the prime minister has a baby?

It would have been easy for her to present that baby on the paepae this week. After last year, with all the tummy rubbing and name gifting, that's probably what many of the guests expected. They'd have loved it. But Ardern isn't shameless. The baby's off limits and we're all the better for it.

Officially, though, we go further: we pretend the baby doesn't exist at all. Which is ludicrous. We expect as much of this prime minister as we would of any other, and so we should. But we also expect we'll get it in the same ways, that she'll do the job exactly as she would if there wasn't a baby, and why is that?

If Jacinda Ardern was Donald Trump, she wouldn't be talking to me with her best smile on right now. She'd be having some "executive time". If she was Ronald Reagan, she'd be asleep.

But she soldiers on. What is she most proud of? "Neve."

In government? "That we're trying to do things differently. Especially in what we do about poverty, and in economics. The wellbeing budget."

She gives me a little lecture about how much they've done so far, within the bounds of an MMP government, and how no, no, she definitely doesn't have any regrets.

In this year where things have to get done, there's a very long list. That new-style budget. Reform of tax, schools governance, schools reporting, justice and prisons, mental health, a whole bunch of other health issues, the culture of welfare agencies.

Progress on light rail in Auckland, social housing, the move to a low-emissions economy, a Ngapuhi treaty settlement, water rights issues, the cannabis referendum. Fixing the problems with KiwiBuild, Christchurch earthquake insurance and vocational training in the technical institutes. Good value spending in the Provincial Growth Fund. Responding to cost blowouts at Auckland's City Rail Link and creating a ports and freight haulage strategy for the upper North Island.

Trying to insulate us, as she said in her speech to business leaders yesterday from a global slowdown, trade stand-off between the US and China, the fallout from Brexit. The best-laid plans, and all that.

When we get to the next election, what does she want to be judged on?

"Two things. Poverty reduction and progress on climate change."

She didn't hesitate when she said that. They're both measurable, and will be measured.

When she goes to an event like Davos and people hold her up as a world leader, what does she think?

"I don't know too much about that. I don't think about it. I've got a job to do here."

In her speech at Waitangi this year, she quoted the first Labour prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage: "We don't claim perfection, but what we do claim is a considerable advance on the past." And, she said, Savage himself had quoted Kawiti, one of the signatories to Te Tiriti o Waitangi: Me he kino whakairo au e hurihia ki te toki mata iti.

"I would be a poor tattoo indeed if I flinched at the first tap of the chisel."

Stand by. This year in politics, everyone has their chisels sharpened.