Leading New Zealand was the ‘greatest privilege’, says Jacinda Ardern at the final event | Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s outgoing prime minister, said leading the country was “the greatest privilege of my life” in her final public appearance before leaving office on Wednesday, less than a week after she unexpectedly stepped down.

“I leave with a greater love and affection for Aotearoa New Zealand and its people than when I started,” Arden said. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

Beaming and at times emotional, Ardern was speaking at the annual birthday of Maori prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, founder of the Ratana faith. The event is the unofficial start of New Zealand’s political year and sees the leaders of New Zealand’s political parties gather in the North Island village of the same name, alongside followers of the faith.

Ardern was the star of the show, although Labour’s Chris Hipkins – who will be sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday – and opposition National Leader Christopher Luxon appeared to accuse each other’s parties of sowing fear or division over Maori issues in their speeches.

The Rātana Church has strong historical ties to Labor, but even for someone of her political affiliation, Ardern received a particularly rapturous reception, arriving wearing sunglasses and a korowai – a Maori feather cloak – to cheers, hugs and requests for selfies. She said she had not intended to speak at the event, but her hosts nixed that plan.

In a brief speech, Ardern appeared to dismiss speculation – which has been rife in New Zealand since her resignation – that the sexist abuse and rage she faced at work prompted her to quit.

Jacinda Ardern and her successor Chris Hipkins enjoying the sun in Rattana. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

“I want you to know that my vast experience of this work, of New Zealand and New Zealanders, is filled with love, empathy and kindness,” she said. “That’s what most of New Zealand showed me.”

A number of Māori leaders used the moment to express their support for Ardern as a leader and a person, while remaining critical of some policies.

“I wear my political bias here,” said Che Wilson, president of the Maori Party, pointing to the indigenous patterns of his clothing, “but Prime Minister, it’s only right that we thank you.” As the crowd erupted in applause, he continued: “Again , thank you.”

“Attacking families over political decisions is simply unacceptable,” said Rahui Papa from Tainui. “[You’ve said] there is no gas left in the tank, but the gas pump has always been there. We would have helped you Prime Minister – and we will help you in the future.

Ardern will always be welcome at Rātana, he said to “come back again and again and again”.

Rātana celebrations are traditionally not a place for overtly political speeches, but on Tuesday some bucked the trend.

Luxon used her time on the marae (meeting place) to condemn Ardern and her government’s adoption of so-called “co-governance”, a term used to refer to the shared management of affairs between iwi (Maori tribes) and the government.

Supporters of the policies say they reaffirm New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, which Maori and the British Crown signed as partners in 1840. The Ardern government implemented them to ensure Maori representation in local government by creating a health authority of Maori and developed a new framework for water management.

But the phrase has become a political lightning rod, with opposition to it among some New Zealanders partly responsible for Ardern’s slide in the polls in the months before she left.

“National opposes shared governance in the delivery of public services,” Luxon said. “We believe in a single coherent system, not one system for Māori and another system for non-Māori.”

Opposition National Party leader Christopher Luxon speaks to the media during the Ratana celebrations.
Opposition National Party leader Christopher Luxon speaks to the media during the Ratana celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Luxon’s party believes in “creating equal opportunities,” he said. “We don’t believe in equality of outcomes.”

He mentioned his efforts to learn te reo Māori – New Zealand’s official language – and said he was “incredibly proud” of New Zealand’s treaty settlement process. But his speech otherwise doubled down on National’s opposition to the Ardern government’s Maori policies.

Hipkins also referred to his rudimentary te reo, which he said he was committed to learning, saying he grew up in a time when Maori language and culture, as well as New Zealand history, were not taught in schools – a situation which Ardern tried to change.

“When it comes to the relationship between Māori and non-Māori, there is often too much uncertainty and too much misunderstanding,” Hipkins said. “In an environment of misunderstanding and uncertainty, it is easy for fear to be cultivated.”

But Hipkins was otherwise coy about which of Ardern’s Māori policies – including co-governance – she might change when she takes office. After being nominated as leader, he promised to “manage” the entire government’s work plan and appeared to hint in his first news interviews on Monday that policies of shared governance were on his mind.

In his Ratana speech, however, he struck a conciliatory tone, praising a sports park near where he grew up that was well managed under a co-management strategy.

But on Tuesday, he wasn’t in the spotlight: Ardern was.

Amid Tuesday’s festivities, she told the crowd: “If you’re going to leave, I say leave with a brass band.”

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