National Party leader Christopher Luxon has used his speech at Rātana Pā to attack the government over co-governance, saying Labour has allowed a "divisive and immature" debate.
Hipkins - being sworn in as prime minister tomorrow - says politicians should never use uncertainty and misunderstanding to cultivate fear for political gain.
Typically considered the first event on the political calendar, Rātana celebrations mark the birthday of the church movement's founder and prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana.
The movement won political influence through the Māori seats, and formed an alliance with Labour in the 1930s. While those ties remain, other parties are also invited to speak during the annual celebrations.
In his speech this afternoon, Luxon said co-governance was "the big topic of the day and of the last few years".
"I think it has been quite a divisive and immature conversation over recent years, and I personally think it's because the government hasn't been upfront or transparent with the New Zealand people about where it's going and what it's doing."
Luxon has expressed his opposition to "co-governance of public services" since soon after his elevation to the party leadership over a year ago.
It is a softening of an attack line brought in by his predecessor Judith Collins over the He Puapua report written by academics and experts, which set out ideas for how to implement the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed up to by John Key's government in 2010.
Collins argued He Puapua was being implemented by stealth - something the government has outright rejected, saying it is not government policy.
Luxon has instead targeted measures in government policy: The 50 percent representation of local Māori alongside councils in strategic oversight of drinking, waste and stormwater services (Three Waters), and the establishment of the standalone Māori Health Authority, Te Aka Whai Ora.
Luxon began his speech this afternoon in te reo Māori before switching to English. He said the Māori economy had boomed under previous National governments, and the party had also delivered innovations alongside Māori.
"I think about Kōhanga Reo, I think about Whānau Ora, innovations that were delivered within the coherency of a single system of delivery of public service."
"We believe in a single coherent system - not one system for Māori and another system for non-Māori - for the delivery of public services. Things like health, education, and justice, and critical infrastructure like three waters.
"It doesn't mean that we don't want Māori involved in decision-making and partnering with Māori, we have a principal objection because New Zealand has one government: it's elected by all of us, it's accountable to all of us, and its public services are available to anyone who needs them."
"While we oppose co-governance of public services as just discussed I want you to know the National Party wants a New Zealand where Māori success is New Zealand's success."
He later clarified his comments to reporters, saying it was the government's lack of explanation about what it was doing about co-governance which had made the debate messy.
He said outgoing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had not come forward and "spent her huge political capital making the case to the New Zealand people ... and having a decent debate and discussion about it.
"A bunch of people may understand it within her Cabinet or caucus but they haven't been able to articulate that to the New Zealand people".
"I was comparing and contrasting it with say the Treaty settlements process, where there was real courage and real political capital and we took people with us with Jim Bolger and Doug Graham's work in subsequent governments."
This week features the return to the first full-scale festivities at Rātana since Covid-19 arrived, and a changing of the guard: It is Ardern's final event as prime minister before handing over to Chris Hipkins, after announcing her resignation last week.
Asked to define co-governance, Hipkins said the arrangements took a variety of different forms, and needed to be explained in their own context.
"From my perspective the most important thing we can do is talk to New Zealanders, explain to New Zealanders what we're doing and why we're doing it.
"Race relations should not be ever be used as an issue to divide New Zealanders with ... certainly in the past it has been."
Asked if Rātana was the appropriate forum for a political speech about co-governance, he said it was up to other party leaders to decide what they would speak on, but National's position seemed to change "quite a lot between when they're in government and when they're in opposition".
"The last National government with John Key and Christopher Finlayson and Bill English entered into a whole raft of co-governance arrangements through the Treaty process and there's quite a lot of variation ... perhaps Chris Luxon would like to say which of those he's going to go back on."
He followed up on these themes later in his own speech at the pā. After rehashing his 20-year history of Rātana visits, he highlighted the meeting between Tahupōtiki Rātana and Michael Savage then paid tribute to his colleagues including Ardern, before his own musings on co-governance.
"Much has been made in the last few days about the fact that I'm a boy from the Hutt, and I wanted to share a few reflections about that," he said.
"As a child in New Zealand in the the 1980s and 1990s the marae was a place of mystery for me. Te reo Māori was not spoken in schools, nor did we learn about our own local history. I learned more at school about Tudor England than I did about Te Whiti Park that was just down the road.
"I used to play sport there on a Saturday morning with my brother; 1980s, '90s New Zealand was a time when Treaty settlements were a point of significant debate in non-Māori New Zealand - and Te Whiti Park and the future of the park was the subject of some of that debate. We were led to wonder as children whether - if the park became part of a Treaty settlement - we would still play sport there on a Saturday morning.
"I can tell you that Te Whiti Park has been part of a co-governance arrangement for a long time now. The Waiwhetū stream that runs alongside it has been restored, the facilities at the park are better than they ever have been and every Saturday morning more young New Zealanders of all ethnicities play sport there than ever before."
He said the relationship between Māori and non-Māori had often been characterised by too much uncertainty and misunderstanding.
"In an environment of uncertainty and misunderstanding it is easy for fear to be cultivated. As political leaders we have two options when faced with that - we can seek to exploit that fear for political advantage, or we can seek to eliminate it.
"He waka eke noa - we are all on the waka together. Some are paddling faster than others, and sometimes we need to take a moment so that everybody can catch up and when we need to do that we should - but we should never allow our relationship to be characterised by fear."
Room to grow for both leaders
At his first media briefing following his rapid selection as the next prime minister, Hipkins had been unable to name the three articles of the Treaty of Waitangi, citing "kawanatanga, tino rangatiratanga, and, actually no, I can't remember the other".
Questioned by media this afternoon he clarified he could not remember ōritetanga, the Māori name for the third article, but he knew what it meant.
"But I don't want to turn this into a pop quiz. Most New Zealanders probably wouldn't be able to recite the three articles of the Treaty. That doesn't mean that the relationship between Māori and the rest of the country isn't a very strong one."
He acknowledged his grasp of te reo Māori was not so good, but pledged to learn and do better, along with a pledge to return to Rātana at least yearly if not more.
Luxon's speech meanwhile acknowledged National had work to do on diversity within its ranks.
"We are a party that had a poor election result, we did not have the diversity that we want to have going forward, but I'm incredibly proud of the progress we've made and I'm proud of the candidates that we'll take to the election in 2023."
He said he had "massive ambition for Māori" and he wanted "diversity in the bloodstream of the National Party ... I appreciate it'll be tough in the Māori seats but we still need to show up and present our centre-right politics and principles and beliefs to all communities across New Zealand."
"The Treaty brought us together as one people ... yes there's different interpretations of it but if you go back to the origins of it there was strong intentions that actually this is what binds us together as one country."
Luxon said he wanted politics in New Zealand to allow people to "disagree without being disagreeable", a sentiment Hipkins' statements seemed to agree with.
In an election year with co-governance shaping up as a pressure point, it will be a standard they have to keep themselves to - if not one another.