In his annual Waitangi address, Prime Minister John Key said the day is becoming a moment to look forward at the future of New Zealand, but feared extremists will erode the event's significance and the public's good will.
While there is no other day that carries such a weight of New Zealand's history, we are by nature not a flag waving nation, Key said.
"From time to time, governments and others have tried to engender a greater sense of national participation around this day. It would be good to see but I'm not sure we can or should try to force it," he said.
Key said making headway with Treaty settlements had helped turn the day into an occasion to look to the future, rather than the past.
"We have given priority to the settlement process because it is in everyone's interests to get the jobdone," he said.
"Within each of those iwi that has settled, a new generation has been freed from carrying the legacywhich has been handed down for, in many cases, more than 100 years," said Key.
He said energy which was once spent on fixing past injustices would now be spent on taking advantage of future opportunities, and he encouraged Northland iwi to reach an agreement on settlements.
"The biggest stimulus on the horizon will come when Treaty settlements are reached on all the claims here, financially empowering iwi and injecting several hundred million dollars into the local economy."
The success of Treaty settlements relies on public consensus about the benefits of the process, and extremist action, including at Waitangi has the potential to erode that public support, he said.
"It is that consensus that also allows us, in government, to be innovative about ideas that, for example, might lift Maori educational achievement and economic participation," Key said.
"Public goodwill should not be taken for granted."
Key accused activists of being short-sighted in their use of tactics and language, that it isolated the public and defeated support for initiatives aimed at turning around the situations they were protesting about.
"All of us are aware that there are many Maori who are not doing as well as they could. You can see it in some of our classrooms and in some of our homes. At its worst you see it on some of our streets and certainly in our prisons."
The priority for turning the statistics around was young people and their outcome in education, Key said, adding while Maori achievement standards had improved they still sat below the national average.
"Turning around the current waste of human potential would do more for Maori and for New Zealand than probably any other single change," Key said.
The problems that divided the country now could be the issues that brought all of New Zealand together to solve them, he said.
"The challenge for Maori and non-Maori is to continue to commit ourselves to achieving that equal opportunity, and to maximising its advantages for the good of individuals, whanau, hapu and iwi and, ultimately, for all New Zealand society."
LIGHT-HEARTED SIDE TO FORMALITIES
A crowd of hundreds gathered on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi this morning for the annual dawn service.
The congregation of politicians, military, local iwi tourists and Kiwis from across the country braved a cold, clear morning at the Treaty meeting house for the ceremony.
Led, last minute, by a cheeky Hohepa Rudolph, his humour provided a light-hearted side to a the formality of Waitangi.
After being initially introduced as the leader of the opposition, PKey led a prayer praising the courage, wisdom and foresight of those who laid the foundation for the country on this day in 1840. Key also paid tribute to New Zealand troops overseas and the late Sir Paul Holmes.
The real leader of the opposition, David Shearer, continued his push for positive celebrations on Waitangi Day in a prayer that gave thanks for New Zealand’s multi-cultural society.
Maori party leader Pita Sharples, Mana's Hone Harawira and Metiria Turei were also called on to offer prayers.
But the morning’s highlight was Rudolph.
Hailing from the small town of Pawarenga in the far North, Rudolph gently mocked his hometown.
"God took six days to create the earth," he said.
"He rested on the seventh and then woke up on the eighth and said 's**t I forgot Pawarenga'," sending laughter through the crowd.
The Catholic Rudolph continued with comedy, joking that when he asked his grandparents why they were always kneeling and praying, they would respond: "Because when we opened our eyes all our land was gone."
As the service finished to a lone bagpiper, preparations for the day of festivities could be seen and smelled across the upper and lower Treaty grounds, as thousands descend on Waitangi for a day of food, music and celebration.