Olivia O’Malley: Labor has struggled to make its case for Maori reforms.

Olivia O’Malley is a former press secretary to the New Zealand Leader of the Opposition and a long-time Conservative activist. He currently works in public affairs.

New Zealand’s annual Waitangi Day commemoration every February 6 is a minefield for its politicians.

From fierce debate over which New Zealand leaders are allowed to participate in a given year to innovative activities by protesters – such as former minister Steven Joyce who was famously hit in the face by a flying pink dildo in 2016 – the anniversaries. Signing New Zealand’s founding documents can be notoriously difficult to navigate.

Coupled with the fact that, due to several significant reforms, race relations issues have become particularly acute over the past 12 months, this year’s Waitangi Day service was always going to be an early test for new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

It was also a test for opposition politicians hoping to remain in government after this year’s elections scheduled for October 14.

In the role just a fortnight after Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation, Hipkins called for unity, accusing her opponents of using race relations to divide.

But this criticism ignores what veteran political journalist Audrey Young calls the Labor government’s biggest failure: a failure to effectively communicate the benefits of new reforms aimed at empowering New Zealand’s Maori population – one in seven New Zealanders has some Maori. The tradition, by no means small.

One of these major changes was the establishment of a Māori Health Authority, providing resources for healthcare delivery by Māori, for Māori, to address chronic health inequalities.

Opposition parties National and ACT have complained that this ultimately means one healthcare provider for some New Zealanders and one for others. This seems to have touched a nerve among voters.

The so-called Three Waters reforms in water ownership are still more controversial.

Taking responsibility for water infrastructure from New Zealand’s 67 local councils and handing it over to four publicly owned entities, Three Waters has strong co-governance provisions, promising equal representation between councils and iwi (tribes) in the new governance structure.

These co-governance provisions have caused uncertainty and fear that Māori will receive a degree of preferential treatment. That uncertainty has passed, and has plagued Labor for months. David Seymour, the ACT leader, described co-governance as “a culture war” in a speech this week, while National under Christopher Luxon has relentlessly focused on the issue.

All of this controversy meant that after taking office, Hipkins quickly announced that he was stepping away from the co-governance and restructuring the debate.

On the one hand, it bodes well for labor. It is welcome to admit that the benefits of the policy are poorly communicated, and voters are expected to respond positively to this.

On the other hand, it’s unclear what this reset will mean in practice, and voters will want to see clear differences between Hipkins’ new approach and previous co-governance proposals.

It is now abundantly clear that race relations will take center stage ahead of this year’s elections. It’s not always this way: National and Labor have a lot on which they align. Both sides recognize the need to combat persistent inequalities in health, education and justice that primarily affect Maori.

The previous National Government also took the lead in negotiating the Treaty of Waitangi Settlement with Māori more than any other.

And for the first time since 2002, the National Party will field candidates in Māori seats this year – albeit just one or two. How well this will do remains to be seen, but one thing that ultimately matters is giving voters on both electoral rolls a choice.

Apart from a few isolated examples, race relations have not been the primary focus of political debate for over a decade.

Yet Labour’s move towards a different delivery of public services seems too far-fetched for voters, while National is making successful cuts in key areas. It has promised to abolish the Maori Health Authority and abolish co-rule if elected.

While this year’s Waitangi Day was a display of relative calm and cross-party representation, the biggest political battle of the year was yet to come. Hipkins may be calling for unity now, but it is the reforms of his own Labor government that have fueled the debate.