Jacinda Ardern faces Waitangi Day reckoning with Māori as progress stalls

Three years after the prime minister asked Māori to hold her to account, many are disillusioned with her government

In an oft-repeated story New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has recalled how growing up in the small, largely Māori town of Murupara, she would see children going to school hungry, and with no shoes on their feet.

It was these scenes of entrenched inequality and poverty, often along racial lines, that drove a teenage Ardern into the Labour party, where she has dedicated herself to combating child poverty.

But fast-forward to the second term of the Labour government and Indigenous political experts say Ardern’s track record in tackling systemic Māori disadvantage has been underwhelming. Despite a record number of Māori MPs in government, little has changed in the appalling socio-economic statistics that reflect the lives of New Zealand’s Indigenous people.

“Among Māori there seems to be an increasingly clear understanding that we can’t wait for the government to meet our needs any more,” says Garrick Cooper, a senior lecturer at the school of Māori and Indigenous studies at the University of Canterbury.

“I don’t think any of our government institutions can transform to the degree they need to to meet the needs of the Māori community, and that’s ignoring the question of whether there’s a will in government [at all].”

Waitangi Day, at this stage still slated to go ahead in Northland on the 6 February, celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Māori chiefs and British colonisers in 1840.

But modern-day Waitangi has become a reckoning between the crown and its Indigenous treaty partners, with protests common and bottomless promises from politicians to improve Indigenous wellbeing.

Over the years many politicians have chosen not to attend – fearful of protest and acrimony – and in 1990, Queen Elizabeth was greeted with a mixture of cheering and boos, as well as having a black T-shirt thrown at her by a young Māori woman.

‘Hold us to account’

Promising change, Ardern swept into Waitangi in 2018 for an unprecedented five-day visit – the longest of any prime minister.

Ngāpuhi, the local tribe, showed respect to Ardern by allowing her to speak on the marae (meeting ground) – the first female prime minister to be granted that right – and also invited her to bury the placenta of her baby on tribal grounds.

Memorably, Ardern asked the people gathered at Waitangi to hold her government to account, particularly regarding its commitments to lift Māori children out of poverty, create more jobs and reduce the high incarceration rate of Māori.

The first 49 seconds of her speech were delivered in te reo, the Māori language, a skill she said she would like to improve.

“When we return, in one year, in three years, I ask you to ask of us what we have done …. Ask us, hold us to account,” she said. “Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here, and only you can tell me when I have done that.”

New Zealand's foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, looks on during a swearing-in ceremony at Government House on November 06, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.
The appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as foreign minister was welcomed by Māori Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

But three years on, and many Māori are feeling disillusioned at the progress of their treaty partner, despite some wins, such as the appointment of Māori woman Nanaia Mahuta as foreign minister, and the growth of the flourishing Whānau Ora, a culturally based, and whānau-centred, government social agency.

The proportion of of the prison population made up by Indigenous people remains stubbornly high – at more than 50%, despite representing only 16% of the general population – and Māori make up 65% of children in state care.

Māori are also routinely over-represented in poor health and mortality outcomes across the board, in addition to facing entrenched issues of poverty, homelessness and drug and alcohol abuse.

The human rights commissioner, Meng Foon, who speaks fluent Māori, recently said racism was “alive and well” in New Zealand. Indeed, racism has been entrenched in many institutions. Media giant Stuff issued a public apology last year for its past portrayal of Māori, which it said had ranged from blinkered to racist until the present day.

But in government change has been much slower, and experts say a series of crises in Labour’s first-term stalled their efforts towards tackling Indigenous issues, including the March 2019 mosque attacks in Christchurch, the global pandemic, and the eruption of the Whakaari White Island volcano.

Usually renowned for her warmth and human touch, Ardern’s stand-back approach on pivotal Indigenous issues has also communicated to many that she’s reluctant to be drawn into the maelstrom of modern-day Māori politics.

The occupation of Ihumātao by Māori activists wanting to reclaim tribal land from private property developers galvanised a new generation of young Māori – but Ardern never showed, despite months of pleas by locals.

Likewise, when the row over the removal of Māori babies from their mothers blew up after a 2019 Newsroom report, Ardern staunchly refused to comment or intervene, or even watch the video of a Māori infant being taken from its mother in a North Island hospital by police and social services.

And on the controversial police armed response teams, which disproportionately target Māori communities, Ardern was silent, saying their deployment was an “operational issue”.

“Her Māori MPs, you could tell they were really uncomfortable when they eventually turned up at Ihumātao,” says Cooper.

Ihumatao protests against private development of land in Auckland, New Zealand
Jacinda Ardern’s absence at the Ihumātao protest was noted. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

“Because Jacinda would not go. She was in Christchurch in a flash, she was at Whakaari in a flash, and we’d hope and expect that she’d be at Ihumātao. But instead she was very wary, and she remains very wary.”

The Labour party have drawn Māori support for decades, but Cooper notes that the most significant treaty of Waitangi settlements have actually occurred under the National party.

Where to from here?

The trust between Māori and any New Zealand government is more fragile than ever, says Cooper, and despite a certain amount of feel-good warmth on display in recent years at Waitangi, structural change, or a “by Māori, for Māori” approach, is farther away than ever.

“Māori need to drive the transformation for change, and government need to understand that their role is supporting us – not telling us how to do it,” Cooper says.

The transformational change promised by Ardern has been a let-down for many New Zealanders. They expected to see massive policy overhauls in the realm of the environment, housing and child poverty, and have instead seen minor, sometimes imperceptible, tweaks.

Dr Lara Greaves, a lecturer in New Zealand politics at the University of Auckland, says Indigenous wellbeing has suffered the same fate under Labour as under previous governments, and that ultimately “there were no giant leap forwards on Māori policy or equality”.

“Labour have that mandate for transformational change and that needs to happen,” she said. But that is “quite scary” for them and their “broad church” of middle New Zealand supporters, she added.

“Otherwise, at this point, it’s really not clear what Labour want to do in terms of their long-term legacy.”

For Kelvin Davis, the government’s minister for Māori crown relations and a Ngāpuhi man, trust is something to be garnered slowly.

“The question is, who has crossed the bridge from that world to the other the most? and it’s almost exclusively been Māori … we’ve learnt the English language, the custom, the laws – the question is how many people have crossed over from te ao Pakeha to te ao Maori? It has happened, but it’s very rare,” Davis said.

“My vision is that hopefully in the not too distant future people can just cross from one world into the other, at will; totally comfortable, flipping in and out of languages as they see fit. That to me is a vision of Aotearoa into the future.”

• This article was amended on 2 February 2021 to clarify the prison population figures.


Eleanor de Jong in Queenstown

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