Terry Dunleavy: You can't ignore history

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Waitangi Day dawn service. Photo / Natalie Slade
Waitangi Day dawn service. Photo / Natalie Slade

Paul Holmes was right about one thing in his Weekend Herald column about Anzac Day and a national day for New Zealand: the way it ought to be observed. But he is monumentally wrong about the date.

History cannot be ignored or cast aside. What we now know as Waitangi Day, 6 February, is the date on which New Zealand became internationally recognised as a civilized nation, and it is thus the day that ought to be as sacred to all New Zealanders as 4 July is to Americans.

We have allowed ourselves to be let down by central and local government when it comes to commemoration of the event which gave us our right to be here as New Zealanders. For the present, we are content to leave it to a fractious national observance at Waitangi where the treaty was signed, a garden party for the elite at Government House in Wellington or Auckland, and scattered observances here and there, initiated largely by local Maori.

What needs to change is the way we celebrate that day. We have no difficulty and commendably so, in every urban community, in turning out each year on 25 April to solemnly recall the day in 1914 at Anzac Cove when, along with our Australian cousins, so many young New Zealanders were made victims of the inept planning by English generals in the invasion of that beach at Gallipoli.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that versions of the treaty were signed by southern Maori chiefs at later dates, 6 February 1840 was the day that the main treaty was signed at Waitangi between representatives of Maori and Governor William Hobson as plenipotentiary for Queen Victoria, as Empress of the then British Empire. That was the document that gave rights as New Zealanders to our non-Maori forebears and their descendants and all subsequent non-Maori immigrants. Governor William Hobson aptly summarized the significance of the historic occasion when he said: "He iwi kotahi tatou. We are now one people. "

That is why 6 February is important to every single one of us, and that's why the date deserves to be observed not only with a greater degree of solemnity and celebration, but also as widely as possible.

A first step should be universal acceptance that Waitangi Day is not a day just for Maori, but for all of us who are New Zealanders, by birth or by immigration choice. That's how we should all celebrate it. Not in a few remote places, but close to the localities in which we all live, as we do on Anzac Day. Not by looking backward to past injustices which are, anyway, in the processes of legal and political settlement, but forward to a search for ways to celebrate our privilege as members of an increasingly multicultural society living in a legally bicultural state blessed by so much of nature's bounty.

Let there be no quibbling about the validity or alleged irrelevance of the Treaty of Waitangi.

An internet source, thefreedictionary.com defines "treaty" as "A compact made between two or more independent nations with a view to the public welfare." Anyone who would seek to challenge the rights of Maori to claim territorial sovereignty of the country named by Abel Janzoon Tasman as New Zealand need only to reflect on this definition. There was no doubt about the sovereign status of Great Britain as an independent nation, or as a major international power in those days. Its decision to adopt a treaty mechanism to obtain governance rights over New Zealand confirmed its view that Maori were entitled to recognition as having sovereign status in the country over which they had held dominion for nigh on the previous millennium.

This is neither the time nor the place to comment on what happened after 1840, or to rehearse the unsatisfactory treatment of Maori by the Pakeha immigrants who became more like colonizers than partners as they grew to outnumber tangatawhenua. While the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1977 (brilliantly summarised by the late Paul Temm QC in his booklet The Waitangi Tribunal - The Conscience of the Nation), and the grievance settlement process initiated by the Jim Bolger Government after its election in late 1990, has set in train a process toward restoration of the Treaty to the prominence promised in 1840, there is still a long way to go to achieve understanding by all New Zealanders of what the Treaty means to us.

So, in the spirit of the stirring appeal by Buddy Mikaere in the Herald a few days ago, let us now, leaders of central of local government and citizens all, start the planning for Waitangi Day 2013 to confirm beyond further argument its status as our national day, by making it a morning of celebration of our local togetherness and an afternoon of joyful recreation. By all means the garden party at Government House, and the national observance at the signing venue, Waitangi, hopefully in an atmosphere of the courteous kawa that is traditional to tikanga on a marae. But let our local authorities make it easy for all of us to join together to commemorate our history close to home. And perhaps a special flag raising at every school on the following morning.

* Terry Dunleavy MBE, JP is a freelance writer and a Pakeha member of Te Whanau o Hato Petera Trust.

- NZ Herald

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