OPINION: Today is Waitangi Day, and thus an appropriate time to reflect what it means to be a New Zealander.
Many people won't bother, of course. They will look on it merely as another day off and by taking an extra day's leave tomorrow, can set themselves up for the bonus of a long weekend. Others will gather and celebrate. Some will look to the insults offered by protesters to the Governor-General and Prime Minister over the last two days, before the official celebrations at Waitangi, and feel there is nothing to celebrate. Others of like mind might look forward to the unifying commemoration that Anzac Day has become and argue that the national day should be shifted to April 25.
Protest is now almost traditional at Waitangi and it takes a leader of some calibre to rise above the taunts and say that people have a right to speak out, as Sir Jerry Mateparae has done. Open and vigorous discussion is part and parcel of the New Zealand way.
If we do stop for a moment today and consider what else defines being a New Zealander, many of us can come up with a tick-list. We are open-hearted and welcoming to strangers; we like our communities and the way that people pull together in a crisis; we no longer look to the Old Country for validation; people of every creed and race gather here. In our history we showed international leadership on women's suffrage and more recently on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. We are fair- minded. We hate injustice.
But whilst race relations are strong, that is one area where our broad-minded, egalitarian selves sometimes come up a little too bruisingly against reality. After 174 years of post- treaty co-existence, the partnership between Maori and Pakeha is still not one of full equality. Maori continue to face multiple disadvantages - social and economic - which translate to real and actual inequality in health, education, employment and the criminal justice system, among other things. To take just one statistic, a UN report in 2011 noted that Maori comprised 15 per cent of the total population, but 51 per cent of those in prison. So, it is not surprising protests keep happening at Waitangi, and while dumping a bucket of fish in front of the Prime Minister may not be polite, it is an expression of a frustration over a real or perceived grievance, in this case about environmental issues.
Despite decades of deliberate attempts to acknowledge Maori as tangata whenua and as treaty partners, and to redress past grievances through the treaty settlement process, our society by and large still tolerates the social inequity that many Maori feel. Two years ago on this day, the then Human Rights Commissioner Joris de Bres complained that many Pakeha still displayed a "lack of generosity" in their attitudes to Maori. Some Maori, on the other hand, have taken a radicalised view. The way forward belongs somewhere in the middle ground. That's something we might ponder on Waitangi Day.
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