Alison Mau: Anzac Day – a time for protest or quiet reflection?

Kiwis of all generations turn out to mark Anzac Day each year, but is the reverence with which the day is held a ...
SIMON O'CONNOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Kiwis of all generations turn out to mark Anzac Day each year, but is the reverence with which the day is held a potential hinder to free speech?

OPINION: Whew, this is a tough one. I've never felt as conflicted about a column subject before.

Free speech versus the right to a peaceful commemoration of our sacred day. Which one to choose?

The video of 12-year-old James Broome-Isa's tirade against the protesters at the Wellington Cenotaph on Anzac Day was hard to watch. Visceral, even.

Alison Mau: "I love the way we've remembered about Anzac Day. I love what it means to us. I don't like the way it's ...
CHRIS McKEEN/FAIRFAX NZ

Alison Mau: "I love the way we've remembered about Anzac Day. I love what it means to us. I don't like the way it's threatening to develop into a day-long muzzle for free speech."

Think of the rowdiest protests you've seen; the TPPA group sitting on an Auckland motorway off ramp and being dragged off by police.

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Last year's image of Iesha Evans standing immobile as armed police rush to within inches of her in Baton Rouge. The Springbok Tour marches; the Vietnam war protests if you're of an age to remember.

Newshub was interviewing peace activists Ellie Clayton and Laura Drew when they were interrupted by David Broome, and ...

Newshub was interviewing peace activists Ellie Clayton and Laura Drew when they were interrupted by David Broome, and his 12-year-old-son James.

Grown-ups on both sides. But here was a young boy letting loose at a group of slightly embarrassed-looking adults.

I don't like critiquing people's parenting, and I won't in this case. I know I would have looked with patience and perhaps with pride on a child of mine who'd offered their considered opinion in that situation; after a minute though, I would have called a halt to the shouting and ushered the child away. That's just me.

And I get where James was coming from. I'm amazed and warmed by the way Kiwis have embraced Anzac Day in the past couple of decades.

RSA president BJ Clark.
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RSA president BJ Clark.

It's more dignified than the way the Aussies do it – all that blatant nationalism, those caped green and gold flags and painted faces.

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Here, we see young people marching with the veterans in solemn pride, wearing the medals of their grandfathers and great grandfathers.

The amazement part is because it wasn't always this way, on either side of the Tasman. Growing up in Australia, Anzac Day was a day off school and not much more.

VC winner Willie Apiata mingles with members of the public during the Anzac Day dawn service at Pukeahu National War ...
HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY IMAGES

VC winner Willie Apiata mingles with members of the public during the Anzac Day dawn service at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington.

None of us knew what it really meant, the Anzac story was not taught to us in school. I'm embarrassed to say that the first time my generation really clocked it was when Mel Gibson starred in the 1981 film Gallipoli, a movie that may have ushered in a new era of Australian filmmaking, but which has been widely criticised for it's historical inaccuracies.

New Zealand RSA President BJ Clark told me it's been much the same for a couple of generations of Kiwis; no-one was taught the history of New Zealanders at war for a long stretch (it's worth noting that the New Zealand Wars still don't figure on the curriculum).

Now the young people are leading the way, he says; the swelling crowds at 268 Anzac Day ceremonies around the country are a direct result of educating young Kiwis about the sacrifices made by their ancestors.

Australian broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied was vilified for posting "Lest We Forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)" ...
WAYNE TAYLOR / FAIRFAX MEDIA

Australian broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied was vilified for posting "Lest We Forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)" on Anzac Day.

Should we be condoning protest on Anzac Day, then? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clark says no. Politics has no place on that day, he says, or at that place.

"Our place," is how he repeatedly referred to the Cenotaph. Our day. A day to remember those killed in wars across the world.

The protest in Wellington was silent and mild, for sure, but more particularly, he says, this is a day for returned service people to remember those they served alongside. Those people do not need the distraction of a protest on their day of remembrance.

Clark admits though, that protest and the right to speak our minds is exactly what generations of Kiwis have gone to war to protect. He mentions this several times, and understands that, well, there's the rub.

Across the ditch there was a parallel kerfuffle this week when ABC television presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Muslim by faith, sent a tweet. "Lest We Forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)," she said, a little off topic as only two of those can be accurately counted as actual conflicts.

The detention of refugees on those islands is a weeping sore on the Australian psyche, but you could argue they're not relevant to an Anzac Day vote of protest.

She deleted the tweet, retracted and apologised within hours, but the backlash was fierce. There were furious opinion pieces and even a 15,000-signature petition calling for her sacking, describing her tweet as a "smack in the face" for "all decent-minded Australians".

It got even loopier when Labor MP Anne Aly, the first Muslim woman to be elected to Parliament, was accused of refusing to lay a wreath at her local Anzac service.

This bit of furphy spread over Facebook like a February bushfire, and didn't stop even when she revealed she'd been at a different ceremony in a different town in her electorate, where she most certainly did lay a wreath.

Have you noticed the connection between these two bits of hang-em-high outrage?

As I've said, I love the way we've remembered about Anzac Day. I love what it means to us.

I don't like the way it's threatening to develop into a day-long muzzle for free speech. Here in New Zealand we've not got to that point yet, not as much as the Aussies.

But lest we follow them along that road, I'm going to have to come down on the side of the protesters this time. 

 - Sunday Star Times

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