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Talk-ED: It's time to meddle with ANZAC Day

Stuart Middleton
30 April 2012


ANZAC Day has come and gone for another year. The media greeted with the old tired stories – Who is making the poppies? Record numbers attend celebrations (assertion rather than evidence). Young people attracted increasingly (assertion rather than evidence). The stories they miss might well have headlines such as “Migrant citizens support ANZAC Day in swelling numbers” for that seems very much to be the case in Auckland, “More people are wearing medals they didn’t earn than those who did”.

It is this last potential headline that worries me because it will be true one year soon. The numbers of service men and women who saw active service is dwindling. Wheelchairs and a slow amble replace the brisk march in time and with precision that former service men and women could muster back in the 1970s.

Back then I played in a military band and it was our task to provide the musical lead for those returned from the South African War (The Boer War). The numbers dwindled as time caught up with them. Now the same is true of the Second World War returned soldiers. One day hopefully there will be no new returned servicemen to swell their ranks as those from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts become fewer in number.

A corollary of this is the increasing practice of descendants wearing the medals of their forebears who gained them through service, distinction and bravery. Now this is allowed for on 25 April and 11 November (but I do wish that people could honour the requirement that they be worn on the right hand side) but when this becomes the norm rather than the exception, ANZAC Day would become something else.

It would be a good thing if we addressed the question of what ANZAC Day might look like in 20 years time. The celebration of wars (and that has always been selective) and those who served cannot sustain such a day forever.

I have argued before that ANZAC Day should become a celebration of the nation as a nation – a true National Day. Waitangi Day is about one element of those defining characteristics that make New Zealand what it is, but there might well be a cluster of values that become an ANZAC Code or Charter that receives special attention on and around ANZAC Day.

The third leg of the celebration trifecta would be Remembrance Day (11 November) which would retain a single focus on military service and bravery, it’s another day that deserves to be looked at and elevated in prominence.

The ANZAC Charter (working title only) might include:

  •         our special relationship with Australia and directions in which it might develop.

New Zealand will inevitably relate to Australia in a changed way over time. Political alliance will reflect the developing family, social, sporting and business alliances that bring us closer together all the time. We should stop from time to time to reflect on this critical relationship and in so doing seek ways of putting the spirit of ANZAC back into 25 April. Education could well pay attention to developing an education “common market” across the two countries – I believe that the benefits will largely accrue to NZ in such a development.

  •         a focus on the diverse cultures of the community which would complement our focus on the founding bicultural relationship with Maori that characterises Waitangi Day.

There currently are festivals but to celebrations of difference and distinction together emphasises the qualities of diversity. The individual celebrations would of course continue at times that relate to the appropriate times in countries of origin.

  •         the special connection between people in New Zealand and the environment.

 This area is one of high and critical social and economic value – do we stop to reflect on it other than in the context of issues, scraps and disputes. What happened to Arbour Day?

  •         the value we place of sport and outdoor activity.

Sport is already operating effectively across ANZAC boundaries. Now the focus could be on getting families out onto the grass – shut the shops for the day and let the people play!

  •         the role of the arts in the community.

This might have a special emphasis on reaching new audiences and highlighting opportunity.

  •         the role of courage, honesty and integrity in New Zealand.

Somewhere the ANZAC Charter will need to address values which around ANZAC Day school children might reflect on. This country was established many hundreds oif years ago and developed ever since because of people with courage. It was also defended in conflicts by people of great courage. Now that we are the third generation bought up in peace, courage needs to be explicitly developed and discussed.

An old argument about ANZAC Day was that the ceremonies and suchlike would prevent countries going to war – perhaps the emphasis in a reinvented ANZAC Day would serve to get us back to strong adherence to the values of honesty and integrity.

This is not anything other than a starting list of ideas. Many more will occur to you. ANZAC Day will need, somewhere ahead of us, to gain a new purpose and place in our country. There would be a robust debate over perhaps a number of years about this. The world has changed and will change more.

Back when I was in secondary school, we used to parade in our school cadet uniform on ANZAC Day, marching through the town to the cenotaph. One year I was sick and couldn’t do this and in fact missed a Latin exam on the next day as well. The Latin Teacher, a Major from the war was highly critical of my missing the exam and suggested that my sickness was a sham. But he saved his biggest dressing down for my having missed the ANZAC Day parade. If he could have sent me to a court martial, he would have. Instead he was content to estimate a low aegrotat mark in Latin.


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