Jacinda Ardern reflects on meaning behind Waitangi breakfast and why 'we shouldn't take protests as failure'

In her fourth visit to Waitangi as Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern opened up about what it means to her - from protesters demanding more, to what sparked the traditional BBQ breakfast. 

"I think one of our strengths is our ability to be open, to be frank, to be honest about where we are in our partnership and when we've fallen down where we need to do better," Ardern told reporters on Saturday, after the Waitangi Day dawn service. 

"Waitangi serves as a place where we can do that. I don't think we should ever feel we have to paper over our imperfections. We will only improve if we acknowledge where we need to improve.

"Right from the beginning I wanted to be part of an environment where people could have that really robust dialogue, and I remember saying right from the beginning that we shouldn't take protests at Waitangi as failure - this is a day where we should be able to reflect on where we are as a nation and we shouldn't be afraid of that. 

"I was always ready to deal with whatever came my way here, but what's most important is that we keep coming and keep holding ourselves to account."

There was only one protester at this year's Waitangi Day celebrations on the Treaty Grounds - a woman who spoke out against the Government's abortion law reforms, and lack of equality among New Zealanders. 

"Do not speak about God when there is no equality in the people!" she said. "Our mokopuna deserve better! No houses, no jobs, no education - inequality not equality."

The woman appeared to be known to the local Waitangi wardens, who embraced her as she told them, "It had to be said". But it's a far cry from previous Waitangi commemorations once held at Te Tii marae, also known as the lower marae. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to media at Waitangi.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to media at Waitangi. Photo credit: Newshub

In 1998, Helen Clark was reduced to tears after her right to speak at Te Tii was challenged. In 2009, John Key was grabbed by two men who had to be dragged away by security. And in 2016, former National MP Steven Joyce was pelted with a dildo by a protester.

Following the ongoing politically-motivated protests at Te Tii, in 2018 it was decided that political talks would move to the more neutral Te Whare Rūnanga or upper marae, where they have been held ever since. 

Labour's Māori caucus returned to Te Tii earlier this week but Ardern did not join them. However she's open to going there next time if that's what Ngāpuhi and the organisers of Waitangi want. 

"I'm totally open to that. I've always, in coming to Waitangi, been guided by what the trust want and what is decided here on behalf of all parliamentarians," she said. 

"One of the things I think we've all enjoyed is the fact that when we come onto the upper marae, we do it as MPs together - not that party political approach and I think that's a good thing.

"What I've said is at the time when those who are involved with the organisation of the events here want me or wishes for me to return to Te Tii, then that's what I'll look to do."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern serving up breakfast at Waitangi.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern serving up breakfast at Waitangi. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Clark avoided going to the dawn service at Te Tii marae after facing so much controversy, so she started a tradition of hosting a breakfast at Waitangi's Copthorne Hotel and attending a reception hosted by the Governor-General.

Ardern has continued her Labour Party predecessor's breakfast tradition at Waitangi, but made it her own by opening it up to the public and hosting it on the Treaty Grounds. 

"When I first became Prime Minister I was running through the usual programme that every other leader has had here and I was told there is usually a Prime Minister's breakfast and it's traditionally hosted at the Copthorne," Ardern said. 

"My view was that that wasn't as open and didn't include as many people as I would like. I'm a big fan of a Bacon Butty and so that's how the barbeque was born. We've done it that way ever since.

"We always struggle though to anticipate the exact numbers we'll have so unfortunately every year someone's left disappointed and I'm often one of them."

Ardern said 2500 breakfasts were dished out on Saturday, an increase on last year, despite the recent COVID-19 scare in Northland. 

"In terms of just the enthusiasm from New Zealanders who have come to experience Waitangi Day, in some cases for the first time, here on the Grounds - a fantastic environment and I think increasingly the lead-up to Waitangi is being used as a chance for good, robust debate and discussion, and that's as it should be."

Ardern has been accused by the Opposition of not addressing issues facing Māori - such as child poverty, rising house prices, gang violence and youth suicide - and only offering them a new holiday, Matariki, the date of which was announced earlier this week. 

"It's all very well, and arguably great marketing, to declare a climate crisis. But what about being honest about the less fashionable crises affecting just as many people every day?" said ACT leader David Seymour in his State of the Nation speech on Saturday. 

"We have crises right now in education, housing and infrastructure, productivity, our most vulnerable children, and law and order, with the gangs running out of control."

Ardern said her Government is making progress. 

"Opposition politicians will raise things in that way. We will always be the first to put our hand up and say we've got more to do. We know that, but we will continue to have the ambition to reduce the inequalities that we see in New Zealand."