The Prime Minister is at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds taking part in a pre-recorded pōwhiri intended to be used as a partial replacement for the usual Waitangi Day commemorations.
Jacinda Ardern will not be joined by National Party leader Chris Luxon when she is welcomed in a move that has sparked frustration from the Opposition.
It is at odds with the usual Waitangi Day pōwhiri protocol in which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are welcomed among manuhiri coming on to the treaty grounds.
Former Labour Cabinet minister and Ngapuhi kaumatua Dover Samuels described the pōwhiri as designed to "imitate in a superficial way" a centrepiece of the Waitangi Day events.
Samuels said: "It doesn't resonate with the wairua [spirit] of Waitangi Day."
The usual Waitangi Day commemorations in the Bay of Islands were cancelled by the trust board after concerns the event was unwise with Covid-19 in the country. The Herald understands the trust board decided on producing a "virtual" Waitangi Day which includes the pōwhiri being filmed today and interviews with prominent Māori and political leaders.
It is understood to be intended for broadcast over three hours on Waitangi Day morning.
Dozens of police and security staff arrived at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds as it prepared to close to the public at 4pm. Traffic cones were placed to block access to carparks, and security moved to block people from moving close to areas where the marae ātea - where visitors are greeted - could be viewed.
By 5pm, about 50 protesters had gathered at three entrances where they displayed signs showing opposition to public health steps taken to manage the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pōwhiri was expected to take place at about 6pm with guests arriving up to 90 minutes before. The Herald was told the Governor General would also be present for the pōwhiri .
In the hours before the treaty grounds closing, camera crews could be seen setting up around Te Whare Rūnanga, the meeting house where guests are welcomed and a challenge delivered.
Dame Naida Glavish, the co-chair of the trust board, could be seen waiting to be interviewed by a crew from the Discovery network that now owns TV3. The Herald understands the trust board sought a media partner for its television package and reached an agreement with Discovery after being rebuffed by other broadcasters.
The Herald attempted to approach Glavish after she had been interviewed by the Discovery crew. A member of Te Hiku Media - which was also producing content for the pre-recorded event - intervened and told the Herald it would not be allowed access to Glavish.
Other features of the pre-recorded event saw a number of Royal NZ Navy personnel arrive to take part in filming around the flag pole. The navy typically raises and lowers flags at the beginning and end of Waitangi Day.
A spokeswoman for the Waitangi National Trust Board told the Herald no comment would be made about filming being done at the treaty grounds today. She said information about it would be made public on Monday.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: "The Waitangi National Trust invited the Government to participate in the pre-recording of content for Waitangi Day.
"At the time the Trust cancelled this year's activities, the Government made the commitment to participate in any virtual programme that may eventuate, in line with our commitment to honouring Waitangi Day and the events at Waitangi.
"All questions about the pre-record should be put to the National Trust as the organiser of the event."
Ardern would not be filmed speaking at the event but was believed to be providing a pre-recorded message. Luxon, as Leader of the Opposition, would also be providing a recorded speech.
A spokesman for Luxon said: "The Leader of the Opposition was not invited to participate in the pōwhiri being held at Waitangi. This was disappointing – Waitangi Day should be about inclusion and collaboration.
"National has made these views clear to the Waitangi National Trust Board."
Samuels said he supported the trust board's decision to cancel the usual commemorations because of the pandemic but didn't believe a pre-recorded pōwhiri and other stage-managed events captured the spirit of the day.
He said he had attended Waitangi Day commemorations for decades and was concerned the plan to pre-record important events turned it into a soap opera which could be used for political advantage.
"This is a script that is being written. It could be Days of our Lives. How much do we push the wairua of Waitangi Day aside. To me, it challenges the historical journey of the spirit of Waitangi Day."