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Maori warn New Zealand PM Luxon off Treaty changes

Ben McKay -

Maori leaders have labelled the New Zealand government as "the enemy" and warned Prime Minister Chris Luxon off "meddling" with the Treaty of Waitangi during heated speeches at a Maori festival.

NZ is currently engaged in a tense and challenging national debate over the place of Maori, and the country's constitutional foundations.

The latest chapter was written on Wednesday when political leaders travelled to the North Island town of Ratana Pa for annual celebrations which double as a part of the political calendar.

On his first visit as prime minister, Mr Luxon faced a mighty challenge to his government's policies for Maori.

"We are watching very closely," Rahui Papa, of the Waikato-Tainui tribe, sternly told Mr Luxon and his deputy, Winston Peters.

"If there is any meddling with the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori will not sit idly by," Mr Papa said, to applause from hundreds in attendance.

Others told Mr Luxon he was taking NZ "to a dark place".

"I expect people to actually express what they feel," Mr Luxon said.

"I don't mind the provocation.

"I don't mind the challenge.

"It's important to be able to hear those voices."

Mr Luxon became prime minister in November after making coalition agreements with two right-wing minor parties, ACT and New Zealand First.

Opposition Leader Chris Hipkins says government leaders are "emboldening racist behaviour". (Ben McKay/AAP PHOTOS)

As part of those deals, ACT and NZ First won policy concessions to explore rewriting the treaty's principles and removing its impact from law.

The government is also scrapping "co-governance" - or power-sharing arrangements with Maori - from many public systems and dismantling the national Maori Health Agency.

Mr Luxon's administration believes in single systems for public service delivery, and has labelled Maori-only systems as "separatist".

The policies have prompted a groundswell of opposition, including the first royal proclamation in a decade from the Maori King, who called for Maori to gather at a national hui and organise.

An estimated 10,000 attended that meeting on Saturday - the largest Maori political movement in two decades.

The hui is one of three major events expected to challenge the government's agenda this summer - with Ratana the second and Waitangi Day on February 6 the third.

At Ratana, the government was likened to a three-headed taniwha, a serpent-like creature from Maori mythology, in speeches given mainly in the Maori language.

"What they were saying in the pae korero (discussion) was there was one enemy and the enemy was the government," Labour's Maori development spokesman Willie Jackson said.

Opposition Leader Chris Hipkins said government leaders were "emboldening racist behaviour" and had "an agenda to take New Zealand backwards".

Mr Luxon, who spoke last, hoped to assure Maori his government would seek to work constructively with them, and would "honour the treaty".

The Green Party's Marama Davidson criticised ACT leader David Seymour for not attending Ratana Pa. (Ben McKay/AAP PHOTOS)

"Maori language and culture is fundamental to the success of our unique country, New Zealand, today," he said.

Mr Luxon - a corporate executive before entering politics in 2020 - insisted he would partner with Maori leaders.

"It's about building relationships, building trust, being able to have some pretty straight-up conversations with each other about how we do that, and ultimately deliver better results," he said.

While ACT leader David Seymour did not attend, NZ First did, with Mr Peters and deputy Shane Jones striking a more combative approach.

"Do not fear debate," Mr Jones thundered as he was heckled.

"I love debate.

"Come to Waitangi - I will see you there".

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said Mr Seymour's non-attendance "shows his ignorance".

"Here is where we see the biggest opportunity for politicians to understand te ao Maori (the Maori world) across the country ... and he's not here," she said.

"It's a big no-no."

Speeches aside, Mr Luxon was greeted warmly and with interest by many locals at Ratana Pa, a Labour stronghold.

It's not clear what reception he will receive when he travels north to Paihia, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, for Waitangi Day in February, with many predicting mass protests.

Ben McKay - AAP

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