Waitangi Day beats Australia Day

RICHARD BOOCK
Last updated 07:56 07/02/2013

You don't always appreciate the value of something until you've lost it. That could soon apply to Waitangi Day if some of us, not least Labour leader David Shearer and United Future party Peter Dunne, have our way. Both have spoken recently of the need to remove politics from the agenda, as if having a day to reflect on our nation's founding document is somehow bad for us. Cut out the awkward bits and just have a piss-up instead.

Dunne, I can understand. Who knows what hold that thing on top of his head has over him. But Shearer? His thoughts must be another worrying sign for many potential Labour voters. Not for the first time, he appears to be running away from the issues that used to define his party's faithful. Dumbing down Waitangi Day; championing our crown-based titular honours. No surprises the migration from Labour to the Greens continues.

It's left me in the curious position of supporting the Prime Minister's take on this. Say what you like about John Key but his stance on Waitangi Day; that it provides an important opportunity for dialogue between Crown and Maori, for talking about issues even though there might not be agreement, is spot on. Precisely what you might expect to hear from a Labour leader, in fact. Shearer? He sounded more like an apologist for treaty haters.

Why would anyone want to change Waitangi Day, or even the focus thereof? We should be proud of it. That Kiwis take time out every year to quarrel about not only the partnership's history but also its current health and future prospects, is something pretty special. Worthy. We should all be able to celebrate that, along with the inevitable dissent and protest that accompanies it. Some countries have parades; we have an annual family meeting.

Yes, it sometimes might be pots and pans at ten paces. You get that in relationships. But give me Waitangi Day any time over the nationalistic jingoism that passes for founding celebrations in so many other countries. Australia Day? Hard to know what's being celebrated the most there: xenophobia and racism, or binge drinking. Not so much a reminder of what it means to be Australian as of what it means to be "un-Australian".

Waitangi Day has relevance; it's an on-going discussion. It brings, as John Key snidely termed, Maori's "grievance de jour" to the forefront of the national consciousness. He's right, too, if not a tad dismissive. One of the beauties is that the day provides a formal, ceremonial platform from which the treaty partners can publicly discuss concerns. Whether it's Maori seats in Parliament, te reo in schools or asset sales, we're better off for the public debate.

Fair enough, Waitangi Day is merely a symbolic front for the partnership. Still, the empathy gleaned and the awareness gained from the arrangement must help us in a wider sense too - certainly in terms of understanding a rapidly changing community. Stands to reason, doesn't it? The more familiar we become with our responsibilities in a bicultural environment, the better our chances of coping in an increasingly multi-cultural one?

Leave Waitangi Day as it is. Key might be right about the "permanently aggrieved" and the "headline seekers" but, 1) most of us can judge that for ourselves and, 2) it seems a small price to pay for the overall value of the commemoration. Those who would change it into something less challenging; who would redefine it as a "one nation" type celebration are missing the point by some distance. Waitangi Day is about having a partnership, not a party.

It recognises not so much a finished product, as a work in progress.

- Auckland Now

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