It is time to put national back into our national day – Waitangi Day.
It is anachronistic that the focus has swung so resolutely to the North of the country when the facts don’t support such a development.
Yes, the talking that led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi started in the North and a significant set of signings were completed there. But the treaty is a Treaty for the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand and signings took place in many other places. And yet there is little sense of this in the activities and media coverage of 6 February each year. On 4 July in the USA Philadelphia does not reign supreme in the activities.
Here are some suggestions:
- Give status to a number of Treaty celebrations on that day, certainly one in each major iwi rohe and city. And this means genuine commitment of government involvement at all of these.
- Privilege the day by making it a National Holiday – a genuine national Holiday up there with Christmas Day and Good Friday – that means all shops shut and a holiday for all! Make the organizing principle one of whanau / family. Have a great emphasis on sport, cultural activity (orchestras, music, performance), on street parties and picnics, of fireworks.
- Let’s get rid of that stupid Guy Fawkes Day and make 6 February our big fireworks occasion.
- Issues and discussion and korero could still be associated with the day but perhaps be formalised into a wider set of discussions that have as a standing agenda such key elements of effective race relations as educational outcomes, health standards, quality of housing, income equity and so on. The political issues of the moment could also get an airing. This forum could be run up North or even be spread through significant marae in Aotearoa New Zealand on a topic basis – education to Ngai Tahu, housing to Ngapuhi, health to Tainui, political issues to Ngati Poneke – and they could shift around each year. Above all they would rise above the stunts of the past few years which typify the actions of those who style themselves as protesters and the media that indulges itself in a feeding frenzy on them.
It could be that such hui are clustered around 6 February and need not necessarily happen only or even on that day.
- Schools would have a valuable part to play – a programme could be developed for say junior, middle and senior schools to focus as that day approaches on Aotearoa New Zealand on appropriate aspects of national identity, bicultural responsibility and New Zealand values (starting with Maori values and considering the implications of these for all Aotearoans/New Zealanders. The environment and our relationship with it could also be a focus. Famous New Zealanders might also have a role (and this would go beyond rugby types).
- That brings us to the flag. Yes, let’s get a different flag that is about us. But the silver fern on a black background has been so bastardised by its use in sporting arenas, and whenever and wherever flag waving is deemed necessary, it can never assume a status that rises above that or being mere bunting, much like that strung around second hand car salesyards. Let’s take time and care to get this right and then we treat it with dignity – no flying it all night, letting it touch the ground and so on.
Schools would teach students to respect it and we would behave in a mature manner about it rather than the foolish response that greeted Minister of Education Merv Wellington in the early 1980s when he asked for no more than this.
No doubt there will be mixed reactions to some of this but we need to realize that the symbolism of a National Day and the way we go about celebrating it and the things we do to emphasise its importance are the very things that bind us as a nation. New Zealand has a chance to get something right here. Working on a solid but still developing base of biculturalism we could give expression to what true pluralism might be in the 21st Century.
In 1940, Allen Curnow writing in celebration of 100 years (sometimes called the “first hundred years”!) since the Treaty was signed. He wrote a very lovely couplet in a poem “Landfall in Unknown Seas”:
Simply by sailing in a new direction
You could enlarge the world.
The facts of history and the impact of legends tell us that this is how Aotearoa New Zealand was populated from the very first arrivals up to those new citizens who were signed in on 6 February. And it is a process that we can continue – it is a simple matter to change direction and our world can be enlarged in so many different ways.
Our Waitangi Day (Norman Kirk in 1973 changed it to New Zealand Day but that only lasted a year or so) can be our special day, a day of joyous celebration, of reflection and challenge, about us as a complex group of people sharing this most blessed spot in the Pacific.