Hirini Kaa: Why cringe at Waitangi?
OPINION: So it seems we are already into our annual Waitangi media maul for 2017. In some ways it was kicked off early this year by caffeine-charged comments around race. To lead up to our National Day with a discussion around race was appropriate, because as a nation we've done quite well lately in engaging with this big issue. Now we have carved out an opportunity each Waitangi Day to reflect on who we are as a nation. As a process it hasn't always been pretty, but it has been profound.
Which is why it was disappointing to hear that the new Prime Minister Bill English will not attend the ceremony in Waitangi this year. The arrangements are according to him "not acceptable" and "not respectful". The Prime Minister noted that "a lot of New Zealanders cringe a bit on Waitangi Day when they see the way that the ceremonies have been conducted" when it should be "a day for New Zealanders to be proud of their whole country."
Well certainly Steven Joyce cringed last year, but that's a natural enough instinct when a giant sex toy comes flying at you. But the idea that as a nation we cringe or need to cringe is, I think, inappropriate. New Zealand is pretty ahistorical when we come to regard our "National Day". Because we don't learn and understand our history enough we think that what we have seen on our screens or read in out papers in recent years is the full history of the Treaty commemorations.
Maori protest around the Treaty of Waitangi is not a modern occurrence. Instead really only Pakeha perception of it has changed in recent decades. Since its signing Maori have been struggling to have the Treaty honoured in full, ranging from petitions and bills presented to Parliament, delegations to England, political parties and even occupations. To some degree the military conflicts of the nineteenth century were attempts to have the Treaty honoured and in particular that thorny issue of rangatiratanga guaranteed in the second article.
Waitangi Day is also often held up as if this is some kind of national day competition where our jingoism isn't up to scratch. In fact other countries' celebrations of nationalism can be much more cringe-worthy. The United States celebrate Independence Day with lots of flags and picnics and fireworks and movies about invading aliens. They also believed in Donald Trump's nationalist demagoguery enough to elect him President. And as for Britain and Brexit… Do we really want that kind of "celebration"?
To be fair to our new Prime Minister, he has engaged well with the Treaty settlement process and talks knowledgeably and occasionally even passionately about the Crown's relationship with iwi and Maori. He even embraces good pronunciation (and therefore appreciation) of te reo Maori. He embodies a break with our past where those representing the Crown ranged from apathetic through to antagonistic in their view of the Treaty. Now that was a history that should make us cringe. And the Prime Minster should go to Waitangi – to listen if not necessarily to speak - however challenging it may be for him. Because this is a present that should make us think, so that we can have a future that we can truly be proud of.
- Hirini Kaa is a lecturer in History at the University of Auckland. His paper Waitangi: Treaty to Tribunal will be offered in the second semester 2017.