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'No choice but to fight': Maori challenge NZ PM Luxon

Ben McKay -

As he stares down the most difficult week of his tenure so far, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Luxon has offered his own challenge to Maori: improve school attendance.

Since taking office in November, Mr Luxon's government has enjoyed precious little honeymooning, instead caught in a national argument with Maori over constitutional reforms.

Already, there has been a Maori Party-led national day of protest, a Royal Proclamation from the Maori King which drew a 10,000-strong gathering, and heated exchanges at annual Ratana celebrations.

The biggest flashpoint is yet to come as Mr Luxon spends time in Northland - where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed - ahead of the country's national day.

New Zealand commemorates Waitangi Day each February 6, marking the agreement of the treaty between Maori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840.

This year 30,000 are expected to visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds during the long weekend, joining Mr Luxon in national reflection.

Some are walking hundreds of kilometres in a hikoi, or Maori march, to be there and protest the government's shift.

To form a majority government, Mr Luxon's National party required the support of right-wing minor parties ACT and NZ First, both of whom have plans to diminish the role of Maori in New Zealand's laws.

ACT wants to redefine how the treaty influences NZ laws, diminishing the role of Maori in favour of a more egalitarian 'one rule for all' approach.

NZ First has a commitment to remove power from the Waitangi Tribunal, the agency charged with interpreting treaty breaches and suggesting remedies.

"We have no choice but to fight," Rahui Papa, a member of the Iwi (Tribes) Chairs Forum, said on Friday ahead of closed-door talks between Maori leaders and Mr Luxon's government.

"The attacks by this government is on a range of fronts affecting Maori.

"From unilaterally redefining Te Tiriti o Waitangi through to belittling te reo Maori (the Maori language), to removing protections for our mokopuna (children), through to the dismantling of the Maori Health Authority."

Mr Luxon said Friday's talks were "really direct in both ways".

"In terms of things and challenges that they wanted to present to us, equally challenges that I wanted to present to them," he said.

The prime minister, who has called education his passion, asked for help to lift school attendance.

"Frankly, when two thirds of Maori kids are not at school regularly, that is a responsibility for both iwi leaders and the government to work on," he said.

"It's a responsibility of people to step up and take responsibility and take their kids to school.

"If we don't, the consequences for all of us are not great."

Regular attendance (defined as showing up for 90 per cent of school days) have fallen markedly since the COVID-19 pandemic, with Maori lagging the national average.

In term three last year, 46 per cent of students were regular attendees - down from 63 per cent in 2021 - while 34 per cent of Maori students made the grade, down from 49 per cent in 2021.

While Mr Luxon delivered that blunt message to Maori leaders, he has also done so at schools in predominantly non-Maori areas in recent times, denying he was patronising indigenous New Zealanders.

"I take those messages everywhere. I'm calling everybody to responsibility," he said.

"We are not setting a future generation up well when 55 per cent of our kids do not get to school regularly."

Next for Mr Luxon is a formal gathering on Monday at the treaty grounds when Maori leaders are tipped to take him to task.

TVNZ deputy political editor Maiki Sherman, one of the country's most respected Maori journalists, said the new prime minister could expect a "respectful" but "very candid" dressing down.

Ben McKay - AAP

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