Waitangi Day: How can we reclaim the day?

By Buddy Mikaere

A Maori protester pokes out his tongue while marching on the Treaty Grounds during celebrations for the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand. Photo / NZPA
A Maori protester pokes out his tongue while marching on the Treaty Grounds during celebrations for the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand. Photo / NZPA

Historian Buddy Mikaere imagines a Waitangi Day that will mean something special to all New Zealanders

In a few days' time we will mark 172 years since that sunny day on February 6, 1840 when a group of northern chiefs gathered around a tent at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands to sign a treaty between Maori and the British Crown.

For most of us, this Waitangi Day will be just another Monday holiday, a chance to get the lawns done and the gardens tidied, wash the car and maybe have a couple of cold ones while fishing or watching cricket replays, or just enjoying winding down.

Others will see the day differently. The serious ones among us will take a moment to reflect on where we are as a nation, as a people. They will mentally wring their hands about such things as asset sales, child abuse, the price of milk, unemployment, the euro crisis, the Rena, the ongoing Pike River and Christchurch earthquake sagas and worry about our seeming helplessness as we float on our sea of troubles.

The glass-half-full people, on the other hand, will find reason to be optimistic: business through the Port of Tauranga seems to be on the rise, maybe the PSA-affected kiwifruit will not be as bad as we thought it would, the sun is shining, it's a day off work and the kids have gone back to school. Yay!

Regardless of how full or empty our glass, we all know that Waitangi Day in New Zealand follows a pattern almost as fixed as the track the sun follows from east to west. We know that our media will be hoping for some kind of ruckus at Waitangi so that later we can all watch the six o'clock television news and have a good grumble before the cameras move to pictures of the traffic snarl going back into Auckland (yawn) and a breathless American reporter tells us about the latest episode of Republican candidate character assassination in the United States.

In between, there will be a dawn service at the Waitangi meeting house; protesters will shout obscure insults at our politicians; we will see people marching with flags and carrying placards; we will see lines of police and sailors; there will be the normal protest around the flagpole or occupation of the Treaty grounds; our new Maori Governor-General will deliver a speech that will be forgotten by dinner time; kids will throw a tennis ball for the dog and the nation's barbies will sizzle and splatter with a million sausages getting readied for a tomato sauce-smothering.

The sun will set on mediocre Waitangi Day #172 and we will all go to bed, safe in the knowledge that though the sausages are as horrible as always, never mind. All is well in Kiwiland. God bless.

I am sad that it is largely this way. I am sad we fail to make February 6 a great day for our gutsy little nation and its equally gutsy people. I am sad that we ignore this annual opportunity to celebrate us - you and me.

I know that worthy people all around the country will attend lectures and debates on the Treaty, where academics and other notables will recycle the same tired cliches we hear every year. The Treaty and its text have been examined in excruciating minutiae that beggars belief. We can argue forever about the content and meaning of the various articles and the English or Maori versions but in our heart of hearts we all really know what it means in layman terms. The Treaty is all about a fair go. You can dress that up how you like but essentially, that's how I see it, so what more is there to be said? Let's just find out where there wasn't a fair go and deal to it.

Other worthies will have organised sports and festival days. Some events will re-enact the arrival of settlers on a beach and somewhere there will be a spectacular waka paddle-past. All good, all worthy, be happy.

But these events fail to fire the imagination.

Doesn't your heart still lift when you see the images of Dick Tayler winning the 10,000m race at the Christchurch Commonwealth games in 1974 or of that great farm hack of a racehorse Kiwi coming from last to first to win the 1983 Melbourne Cup or of a giant Jonah Lomu scoring tries against England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup? I wish there was some way feelings about Waitangi Day could similarly lift our spirits and incite the buzz of intense pride those events did. It is interesting that all my examples are drawn from sport, where winning is often pooh-poohed (usually by non-sportspeople) as being transitory and fleeting. But I will carry the memory of Kiwi's surging run to the line to my deathbed and until then, I will draw on the well of inspiration that horse created for me whenever I feel the need.

We need to reclaim Waitangi Day. But it doesn't mean we throw out all the elements of our current "celebrations". By all means have a pre-dawn church service, where we can be thankful to God or whomever we might pray to or believe in; for this country of ours, its lands, waters, forests, mountains and seas and the myriad good things about being us - the people of this place - we give thanks.

There is a simple dignity to a flag-raising ceremony that greets the morning sun and the promise of a new day, so we should still do that. Our starred flag should rise like a southern phoenix on the Waitangi flagpole, shaking off the ashes of the past year to snap in the breeze with the restless vigour that characterised our forbears, Maori and Pakeha; a vigour that drove them here from across the oceans.

The Governor-General's speech should be at breakfast time on national television and radio. It should be an anticipated event in much the same way that the Queen's Christmas message used to be. But we should give him real words to say. We should give him words of wisdom and inspiration and hope. Words that tell us who we are and what we can become and why we should celebrate this day; words that send us into the Waitangi Day morning feeling proud to be New Zealanders.

Waitangi Day should also be the day the Prime Minister gives his State of the Nation address - the day he tells it to us straight. Why do politicians always find this hard to do? Why can't the Prime Minister just say: "look guys, this is how I saw the past year; this is what we need to do to make things better; this is the resource we have available to do it with; this is how we are going to do it. Furthermore, throughout the year I am going to give you regular updates against these same points. Happy Waitangi Day!"

The Prime Minister should be followed by a support cast of prominent Maori and Pakeha here and overseas, speaking on TV or via satellite link about their pride in being New Zealanders on this day. While we are at it, let's get rid of honours being given out at New Year and on the Queen's birthday. These are national New Zealand awards, so they should be given out on this day of our nationhood.

Make this the day to honour our top creative people. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra should give a Waitangi Day evening concert. Our best singers should perform. Our best musicians should give concerts; there should be exhibitions of our best painters and sculptors; new New Zealand-made movies should premiere on this night. Restaurants should serve New Zealand-themed food and wines and, across the world wherever Kiwis are gathered together, it should be a Waitangi Day culinary celebration with nary a sausage in sight.

Make this the day, too, that our most successful business people tell us their plans for the coming year; how they think the economy should be managed, how it is possible to be in this country and still achieve commercial success.

Later that evening, in the full glare of national television and with all the pomp and ceremony we can muster, including a full-blown haka, our brave flag should be lowered at Waitangi and carefully put to sleep for the night.

All these things we can do. All it takes is a mind-shift. All it takes is a desire to make Waitangi Day truly a national day.

* Buddy Mikaere is a writer, historian and environmental consultant. He is a former director of the Waitangi Tribunal and lives at Papamoa, Mt Maunganui.

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