Maori struggles in New Zealand spotlight

Ben McKay
·3-min read

On Waitangi Day, Jacinda Ardern is fond of using a bridge as a metaphor when reflecting on her country's health.

New Zealand's national day commemorates the Treaty of Waitangi, the historic agreement between Maori and the Crown that underpins the nation.

Ms Ardern's bridge represents both the gap and the connection between the Maori world, and of that of non-Maori, or Pakeha, in New Zealand.

Too often, Ms Ardern believes, is it Maori who do the legwork.

"Every day since the signing of the treaty, you have stepped and walked over that bridge. Every single day," she said in Waitangi this week.

"From your ancestors through to today ... I know that Maoridom is exhausted.

"And we have not walked that bridge often enough.

"That's why we must constantly pledge to do things differently."

Waitangi itself is also governed by a bridge; a one-lane road onto the treaty grounds that all entrants must cross.

On February 6 each year, people make the crossing in their thousands, walking by foot or crawling in their cars in the darkness for a dawn service.

Pinned to the bridge are dozens of Maori nationalist flags, fluttering over azure waters.

The journey and the service lends itself to reflection: has the Treaty's intended equality and partnership between peoples come to fruition?

"Every Waitangi Day is a chance to reflect on ... how are we progressing, our partnership, our relationship, but also constantly looking forward with hope," Ms Ardern said.

"There are things that we need to do better. But I do absolutely believe that you get a sense here of real optimism about what can be achieved together."

Ms Ardern's optimism has been met with a healthy dose of cynicism and on-the-ground truths by some Maori leaders.

On Thursday, political leaders heard disheartening stories of social disengagement, police harassment and entrenched Maori poverty.

Hirini Tau, a local Maori elder, told the PM "don't just come sit down once a year and go back to Wellington".

Just as in Australia, indigenous Kiwis are overrepresented in prison populations, have worse health outcomes, and underrepresented in positions of power.

What's different in New Zealand is the platform given to indigenous issues.

As is now traditional, Ms Ardern has spent several days on the treaty grounds in the lead-up to Waitangi Day, visiting nearby communities and events, all with a distinct Maori flavour.

At those gatherings, she has trumpeted her government's achievements for Maori.

That includes the teaching of local history in Kiwi schools at long last, a new public holiday for Maori New Year, and growth in Maori-specific agencies.

She can also boast five Maori ministers and 15 Maori MPs in her caucus of 65, both records.

Perhaps that's why Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson said this week "we're the most successful government for Maori issues that you've ever seen".

Whether or not that bold statement stands at the end of Ms Ardern's tenure will depend on whether she can make inroads on the tougher stuff.

That's reducing inequality. Getting Maori off the housing waiting list and into homes.

Increasing Maori employment. Emptying Aotearoa's prisons.

Ms Ardern says making progress on those issues is "absolutely why we are here as a Labour Party".

"We will always be the first to put our hand up and say we've got more to do," she said.