The day did not start well. Labor deputy leader Kelvin Davis slipped as he exited the NZDF Hercules which had landed on a cold and dreary day. Earlier, there had been a debate about whether to wear a suit or not.
Nevertheless, as Herc touched down, the Prime Minister had arrived for her first trip to the Chatham Islands.
An in-and-out-in-a-few-hours affair, Ardern was there to open the brand new Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Civic Building, and Chatham Islands Museum.
At the same time a local taonga was returned – a patu carried by Pōmare Ngātata in 1835 when he first led Māori over to the Islands.
Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust CEO Gail Amaru said the return of the patu is a significant event in the history of Ngāti Mutunga.
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“The patu parāoa was carried by Pōmare Ngātata in 1835 who led the Māori now known as Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri from Wellington harbor to Wharekauri,” said Amaru.
“He secured safe passage on that ship to Wharekauri for hundreds of our tūpuna in two separate voyages. This precious taonga has been passed down through generations of the Pomare whānau, and we’re incredibly honored to welcome Miria Pomare, the current kaitiaki of the patu, here today.”
This was significant development in the life of the island.
Jacinda Ardern announced support for a drinking water project at the Chatham Islands, while a local iwi announced a multi-million dollar treaty settlement.
There is no public transport and no taxis on the Chathams. It has broadband and mobile coverage went last year. When ordinary visitors come to the Chathams they need to organize transport prior to arrival.
This being the case, the PM and attending MPs Kelvin Davis, Kieran McAnulty, Rino Tirakatene and local MP Paul Eagle, and dignitaries, piled into a makeshift motorcade and headed into Waitangi – the main town.
Jane King, the friendly, hard case bus driver ferrying the media contingent around apologized for driving on the wrong side of the road at times – it was to “avoid the potholes”. Not that there was any indicator of a right or left side on this place of big skies and desolate beauty.
Just as the Powhiri began – a joint effort between the local iwi Ngāti Mutunga and Moriori, significant for its cooperation – the heavens opened. While most of the VIPs were under cover, just about everyone else got drenched, but no one was running for cover.
“You wouldn’t believe it was sunny an hour ago – seriously it was,” one local leaned over and told me.
The Chatham Islands are home to New Zealand’s most remote population. Numbering about 680 in total, it is a community facing challenges, but with a treaty settlement imminent it is looking to the future with considerably more optimism and experiencing mild population growth.
In fact, the day also marked a significant agreement in principle towards a Treaty of Waitangi settlement signed between the Crown and the local Iwi, Ngāti Mutunga.
“Coming to an agreement allows us to establish a proper Treaty of Waitangi-based relationship with the Crown that has not existed since the annexation of Wharekauri/Chatham Islands in November 1842,” lead negotiator for the Iwi, Tom McClurg said.
“Our people see the agreement with the Crown as a beginning rather than an end – a fresh start for nga uri o Ngāti Mutunga and the wider Wharekauri community,” McClurg said.
The new building was clearly a significant day for the community and had been in the making since 2012, according to Mayor Monique Croon.
Because of Chatham’s location – about 850km to the east of New Zealand – the cost of living is high. Key on the list of issues Island and iwi leaders wanted to talk to Ardern and ministers about, was energy. Basically everything on the island runs on diesel or gas. It can be tough to get supplies.
Aside from getting with the times on climate change, the price and availability of diesel is both a big cost for islanders, as well as a handbrake on growth – particularly population growth. Housing is the same.
Some sort of locally generated renewable energy – a local hydro scheme is one such suggestion – would help unlock the economy. But that would require Government investment, and with many other calls on resources it will take the Chathams time to get much help.
“That’s an idea that’s been floating around for a few years. What I do know is that the most recent business case supported a wind turbine and battery option,” Jacinda Ardern said.
“This is a really significant opportunity to be here to finally talk directly with those locals who have been advocating for us a number of the things that we’ve been able to make some progress on today.”
The local MP for the Chathams, Labor MP for Rongotai Paul Eagle said that he tries to get to the Chathams “quarterly”.
After unveiling the plaque accompanying the new center – which the Government contributed some money towards – it was on to what is known locally as “the Den”, which is a building in the Norman Kirk Memorial Reserve.
They love big Norm here, and evidently he oversaw and helped get a lot of the development up on the island. In the Reserve’s clubrooms overlooking the race track and rugby field – which looked like they are probably sporting the same decor they were when put in – hangs a portrait of Kirk, signed by the big man himself. The Government had paid for the new playground.
There was a presentation of some public service medals and some lunch – featuring a lot of the island’s terrific seafood and friendly welcoming islanders. I’ve never had a paua spring roll before. Outstanding.
As lunch progressed, children ran across the rugby field and race track (New Zealand’s oldest) jumped the fence and played in a bunch of flax in the paddock beyond.
A soon as lunch was done the PM visited a micro-nursery to plant a (presumably micro) tree, and it was wheels up.
The last Prime Ministerial visit was a decade ago, and the one before that was in 2005. Its anyone’s guess when a prime minister will be back there again.