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Luxon strives for unity amid Waitangi Day unease

Ben McKay -

New Zealand has welcomed in the country's national day, Waitangi Day, with a dawn service in the far north drawing thousands from across the spectrum of Kiwi life.

The governor-general, prime minister, defence force chiefs and religious leaders were among a record crowd to brave an early start at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

On a perfectly still summer's morning, the Waitangi National Trust staged the traditional non-denominational Christian service at the birthplace of the nation.

It was here, in 1840, that a treaty was struck between Maori chiefs and the British Crown, laying the foundation for New Zealand.

February 6 was first celebrated as the anniversary in 1934, and it became a national public holiday 50 years ago this year - in 1974.

Waitangi National Trust chair Pita Tipene urged Kiwis - currently engaged in a government-led debate to rewrite the treaty's principles - to understand their nation-building history.

"What this is all about is learning our history to move forward," Mr Tipene said.

"If our society is still coming to grips with Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), He Whakaputanga is not known at all," he said, referring to the 1835 Declaration of Independence by Maori chiefs by its Maori name.

Mr Tipene said the 2024 dawn service attracted a record crowd.

The service featured prayer, waiata - or Maori song - and reflection, including by Prime Minister Chris Luxon, who read a passage from the Bible centred on unity.

"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ," he said.

"If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices."

That political unity Mr Luxon is striving for is currently lacking.

The right-leaning government is forging ahead with a policy program which includes de-emphasising the Maori language in government and abolishing Maori-specific services.

It also wants to strip power from the Waitangi Tribunal, the body established to investigate breaches of the treaty.

These changes have incensed many Kiwis, especially Maori, prompting the protest and unease that came to the fore this week in public meetings at the treaty grounds.

Mr Luxon has been widely panned for his speech on Monday, which did not engage in the debate and instead spelled out his government's broader agenda.

Jo Moir, political editor at NZ media outlet Newsroom, said his words "rang hollow for many in Waitangi", questioning whether he was open to Maori perspectvies.

NZ Herald senior writer Simon Wilson called the speech "outrageous".

"On an enormously significant occasion of state, the prime minister chose not to rise to it," he said.

Mr Tipene was among Maori leaders disappointed by Mr Luxon's unwillingness to engage.

Rahui Papa, associated with the Maori King, said Mr Luxon was looking past Maori in the crowd and "speaking to the cameras".

"That's how these guys play," he said.

Other leaders from the coalition, David Seymour and Winston Peters, were roundly heckled and jeered at during their confrontational contributions on Monday.

Showing how polarising the debate has become, Mr Seymour was also booed at the normally serene dawn service.

Later on Tuesday, a hikoi - or Maori march - arrived at Waitangi after walking 200km from New Zealand's northern tip, Cape Reinga, picking up supporters on the way.

It is believed to be the largest such demonstration to arrive at Waitangi for four decades.

Elsewhere in New Zealand, many cities and towns hosted dawn services, community barbecues and festivals to commemorate.

Those in Waitangi lingering at the treaty grounds saw a 21-gun salute from the HMNZS Manawanui, stationed in the Bay of Islands, to honour the 184th anniversary of the treaty's signing.

Ben McKay - AAP

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