Editorial: Meaningful but meaning what?

Last updated 05:00 06/02/2014

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OPINION: Celebrating Waitangi Day are we? Most likely the answer depends on how we define "celebrating". Marking with festivities? Performing publicly and duly? Not too many of us will be roped into either of those two categories.

How about merely "observing" it then. In the sense of taking note and watching carefully?

That would be more of us.

But it's hardly a participatory thing. In the south you won't find great numbers of people coming together with common intent. There's fun, dare we say a bit of cultural nourishment too, to be had for those who show up for the likes of Invercargill's Queen's Park concert, or for the waka ama fun day on the Oreti. But nobody's predicting especially large crowds.

Fact is that we don't do much collectively on Waitangi Day.

Well, maybe we do. You could say we collectively decide to take the day off and do our own thing, thanks very much. Typically with family and friends.

You wouldn't want to knock that because seizing opportunities to do exactly that is surely part of what it takes to live well. The fact remains, however, that they're undertakings that are not particularly distinguishable from any other day off.

For many, the wider significance of Waitangi Day tends to enter our consciousness when we check into news reports for any ructions at Waitangi, maybe pausing for newsy soundbites from the speechifying.

The muted nature of nationwide events outside Waitangi itself been remarked upon many times before, as has the contrast between the rather more full-hearted community involvement in Anzac Day.

Fair enough, but that's to say that anything less than a collective sense of large-scale triumphalism is inappropriate. There's nothing all that wrong - it might even be more our style - if Waitangi events nationwide are typically a tad low-key.

You have to wonder though whether they're still a little off-key, which is not the same thing at all. Do we detect an irritable impatience with attempts, legitimate though they are, to use the occasion to encourage us to recalibrate some of our priorities?

This time around, Labour's Shane Jones got in early with a combative wee jab that iwi leaders are too focused on "hustling resources out of the Government" and not doing enough to address violence among young Maori men.

Ask people what the day is set aside to acknowledge and you will get more than one answer. A founding document which allowed, or at least set out to allow, other people to come here and settle in peace and partnership with Maori?

Or a less-focused more expansive celebration of nationhood - essentially New Zealand Day - recognising, among other things, that bicultural beginnings have led to a multicultural society? Or a clear-eyed assessment of what we're getting wrong as a society? Is this a day to party, get pensive, or just get over ourselves?

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That there isn't a tidy uniformity to the perceived significance of the day isn't necessarily regrettable. There's no reason why people can't form divergent views and find reasonable ways to express or honour or just enjoy them.

But any way you look at it, this is a public holiday that doesn't hold a particularly vivid place in the public consciousness in a way that really engages most of us. And that's a shame.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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