(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 16.)
Another Waitangi Day has passed, and once again many New Zealanders – possibly the majority of us – tried hard to ignore what was going on at Waitangi, birthplace of the nation. (Along with 6000 others, I went to a country race meeting at Tauherenikau.)
We would desperately like to celebrate our national day without the customary ugly recriminations. After all, we have much to celebrate. Our economy may be in poor shape, but we live in one of the world’s most civilised multicultural democracies. New Zealanders of all ethnicities enjoy rights and freedoms denied the vast majority of the world’s people.
But year after year, the day is hijacked by extremists, such as Hone Harawira’s menacing, loudmouth nephew Wi Popata, who know their antics will capture the attention of the media. The rest of the nation cringes and tries to look away.
We wonder why our leaders continue to expose themselves to the humiliation heaped on them at Waitangi and wish that they would go somewhere else on the day, as Helen Clark did after her unpleasant confrontation with the creepy Titewhai Harawira years ago.
And speaking of Mrs Harawira, we wonder why politicians continue to play this manipulative woman’s game – as John Key did when he allowed her to clutch to his arm, as if giving him protection and legitimacy, when he entered the Treaty Grounds. This is as demeaning to the prime minister’s office as his propensity for silly publicity stunts, such as the recent incident in which he strutted a catwalk like a mincing drag queen.
Most of all, we wonder why Waitangi Day continues to be a day of embarrassment for most New Zealanders when other countries that treated their earliest inhabitants far less fairly and honourably than New Zealand has, such as Australia and the United States, are able to celebrate their national days without acrimony or guilt.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we are constrained by our inherent sense of fairness. New Zealanders by and large are decent people who want to do the right thing. Even when affronted by angry and violent protest, our liberal instincts kick in.
More than most people, we are prepared to allow troublemakers their say. A voice inside us says, “Gosh, perhaps we did treat them badly”. But in allowing the malcontents to take control of our national day year after year, we extend tolerance too far.
I’m told by people who have been to Waitangi on February 6 – and Key himself emphasised this in his speech on the day – that it’s an enjoyable outing. The atmosphere there is relaxed and unthreatening. The same can be said of Waitangi Day festivities elsewhere, where the emphasis is often on celebrating New Zealand’s cultural diversity rather than focusing solely, as Maori activists want us to do, on the relationship between Maori and the Crown.
Yet in terms of national consciousness, as reflected by media coverage and political imperatives, it’s the Maori-Pakeha theme that continues to demand our attention – and never the positive aspects, although the Maori-Pakeha relationship is surely as close and harmonious as any in the world (as is attested by the copious volumes of European blood running through the veins of even the most hot-headed “Maori” protesters).
A balanced view of our history would acknowledge the many ways in which our colonial forebears were humane and enlightened by the standards of their time. No one ever points out, for instance, that Maori men were granted the vote 12 years before voting rights were extended to all men of European descent. That doesn’t fit the narrative in which the Europeans were land-grabbers and oppressors. No, we hear only about the grievances.
I detect among New Zealanders a powerful desire to break free of this painful preoccupation with what some Australian historians call the “black armband” view of history. Most of us would love our national day to be a positive experience, as it is for other countries.
How we can achieve this isn’t clear. Stay away from Waitangi? Most people would be happy with that if it denied the part-Maori mischief-makers a platform. They would still be free to harangue us on the other 364 days of the year, but without the presence of TV crews they would almost certainly soon lose interest.
Trouble is, politicians and the media seem drawn to Waitangi like moths to a flame. For the media, it’s the irresistible allure of a scrap that entices them. A shouting melee is always good for the 6pm bulletin.
The politicians’ attraction to Waitangi is harder to explain. Presumably it has something to do with the desire to ingratiate themselves (though they would doubtless prefer to say “express solidarity”) with Maori powerbrokers. This also explains the annual politicians’ pilgrimage to Ratana, which is now seen as marking the start of the political year.
Certainly Key is keen to keep the Maori Party onside and therefore emphasise that National has succeeded in severing the historic link between Maori and the Labour Party. His government has granted open-door access to a powerful, non-elected Maori elite, the iwi leadership group, and is prepared to push through legislation that could give certain privileged tribes unprecedented rights over the foreshore and seabed that has traditionally belonged to us all.
In the circumstances, it’s scarcely surprising that Key shows no inclination to break the Waitangi habit, or even to encourage debate about how we should observe February 6.
A more radical option, but even less likely, would be to change our national day. United Future leader Peter Dunne, who accurately described the latest Waitangi Day antics as a farce, wants to rename it and shift it to another date, though his reported suggestion of Queen’s Birthday as an alternative makes little sense to me.
I’ve no doubt a fed-up public, including many Maori, would broadly support him; but aside from Dunne and perhaps ACT, there is little political appetite for a change. As is so often the case, the views of the political elite are far removed from those of the people they purport to represent.