Special day unites New Zealanders like no other.
As time has passed, the esteem for those who fought and died overseas in the New Zealand uniform has increased. As much will be apparent again today in Anzac Day commemorations around the country. Many of those who turn out to honour parents and grandparents or simply to be part of the solemn ritual will have had no experience of warfare or even life in the armed forces. That is irrelevant to an event that now has a special importance. Indeed, a poll released last week found that a clear majority of New Zealanders believe Anzac Day means more to them than Waitangi Day.
That, perhaps, is an understandable reaction to what the two days have come to mean in the past few years. What should be a celebration of nationhood and the partnership between Maori and Pakeha has become an occasion for protest and expressions of grievance. For many, the way in which Waitangi Day highlights our differences has become dispiriting. Anzac Day, in comparison, has become unequivocally a symbol of what unites New Zealanders.
This has framed its increasing importance, a feature that will only increase with the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli in 2015.
One of the features of the UMR Online Omnibus Survey, however, was that those aged over 60 were particularly likely to say Anzac Day was the more meaningful occasion. Those under 30 were relatively likely to say both days were equally important. That is a healthy perspective. It is no slur on Anzac Day. Rather, it represents a welcome recognition of the difference between the two occasions. Today, we commemorate and honour our war dead. The day should be set aside as such. If Gallipoli also played a part in the building of nationhood, Waitangi Day is, nonetheless, the logical time for acknowledging our national identity. To accord it a lower status is to ignore the central role that the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi continues to play in this country.
It is also worth remembering that Anzac Day did not always enjoy the prominence that it has these days. Indeed, it once occupied a position similar to that of Waitangi Day today. The division and tensions arising from New Zealand's participation in the Vietnam War made it a battleground between young and old. It is not altogether fanciful to envisage such a situation recurring if this country were to involve itself in an unpopular and divisive war. A report, commissioned by Australia's Department of Veterans Affairs, made a tangential point in relation to the Gallipoli centenary. It suggested the ambitious commemoration programme was a "double-edged sword" and a potential area of divisiveness in a multicultural society.
That warning was a considerable overstatement, and based on the drawing of a very long bow. Perhaps it owed something to the fact that, especially among young Australians, there was more opposition to involvement in the war in Afghanistan than here. Either way, it did point towards the way that such occasions can be tarnished or, alternatively, burnished.
Over time, our attitudes to Anzac Day have changed. It has come to mean far more than even the most optimistic of its founders could have envisaged. The same can happen to Waitangi Day if more people take a greater interest in what it represents.
The attitude of young people, as revealed by the UMR poll, is a welcome indication that this could be happening. As we remember and honour the sacrifice of our soldiers today, so we should in equal measure be prepared to celebrate our nationhood on Waitangi Day.
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