Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Don't try to replace Waitangi Day with a myth

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The notion that a newly created NZ Day would be a concerted celebration of what unites us, and somehow impervious to protest, is fanciful. Photo / Dean Purcell
The notion that a newly created NZ Day would be a concerted celebration of what unites us, and somehow impervious to protest, is fanciful. Photo / Dean Purcell

Around rolls another February, another Waitangi Day, and with it the predictable outbursts from a small but vocal minority, a self-important, rabble-rousing, racket-making bunch, who so disappointingly let their own kind down by drowning out what should be a time of national reflection.

I refer, of course, to the posse of cantankerous media commentators denouncing the Waitangi commemorations, the protests, the rows. Every year comes the righteous lament that we are being denied a day to mark "what unites us, not what divides us", in the words of one talkback radio host. Waitangi Day, bewailed another, is "too much about history, too much about race". And, like clockwork, the answer is this: give us our New Zealand Day. You know, like the Australians.

This chorus of (mostly) middle-aged white male grumps are unfailingly served fresh evidence for their stand by the headline news. This year, the Governor-General was involved in a "scuffle", or was it a "jostle"? Turns out it was nothing much at all, a few shouted words, and Sir Jerry Mateparae didn't even notice them.

On Wednesday, to the relief of the assembled newshounds, someone tipped a few fish in the Prime Minister's path, apparently in protest at deep-sea drilling. It was a "fiery and fishy reception" for John Key, went the top of the One News 6 o'clock bulletin.

But in truth - as, to be fair, both One and 3 News went on to note - it was all a fairly tame affair. A few hollers, a scattering of pilchard: the combined impact was decidedly less hazardous than a five-minute evening stroll down Queen St. By yesterday, many news outlets were conceding that the big story this year was not, after all, unrest, but the historic invitation to women, including Metiria Turei and Annette Sykes, to speak on the paepae at Te Tii Marae.

But expect none of that to deflate the puffed chests and cheeks of those who would see Waitangi Day renamed as, or replaced in status by, a sparkly, new and practically-perfect-in-every-way New Zealand Day.

They will have been delighted by a report, typical of the form, earlier this week on TV3. It asserted that "many New Zealanders are calling for a new kind of celebrating, one placing national pride above protests and politics". The only person quoted in the item making such a call was former Labour leader and political fishmonger David Shearer, but never mind that. Unlike New Zealand's "day of political point scoring and protests", we were told, "across the Tasman Australia Day is a celebration of what it means to be an Aussie ... seen as a diverse and inclusive event".

There is no mention in the report of the vast numbers of Aboriginal Australians for whom Australia Day is anything but a "diverse and inclusive event". For them, the day, held on the anniversary of the first raising of the British flag in the new colony of New South Wales in 1788, is instead known as Invasion Day, or Survival Day. For them, January 26 is indeed a day of protest. In the words of Aboriginal leader and former Australian of the Year Mick Dodson, it is "a day of mourning ... the day on which our world came crashing down".

Four years ago, the Australia Day riots in Manly simmered with racial tension in the name of "Aussie pride". The ugly side of Australia Day can also be measured in the assault figures. According to Victoria's deputy police commissioner Tim Cartwright, "Australia Day is the most violent of our public holidays by a long shot".

But even if you overlook the disharmony drowned out by celebratory fireworks, the patriotic bombast of Australia Day is an ill fit for New Zealand. Here, we are healthily suspicious of such feverish flag-waving and chest-thumping, of a parochialism that so often threatens to spill over into jingoism and xenophobia.

And the notion that this newly created New Zealand Day would be a concerted celebration of what unites us, the nation linking arms in Kumbayah, and somehow impervious to protest, is fanciful. How to stop the dissenters? Spot-fines? In any case, isn't nonviolent protest itself something to celebrate in a mature democracy?

Nor are our shining lights hidden beneath a bushell. The pages of this newspaper, for example, teem with pride and approbation at our compatriots' achievements in the world. We don't need a new day to toast ourselves - there are 365 of them already. We may not go in for the screech of Aussie-Aussie-Aussie-oi-oi-oi, but, come on, is that really a sign of weakness on our part? The national tendency to humility suits us - even if we might sometimes strain that humility by quietly bragging about it.

Waitangi Day delivers a sometimes uncomfortable, often controversial moment to consider the way modern New Zealand came about, for better or worse. Around the country yesterday there were marae dawn services, powhiri, picnics, concerts, fairs, citizenship ceremonies. And debate. And protests. Of course it isn't sung in perfect harmony, because that would be a nonsense. Celebrate it, don't celebrate it, embrace it or ignore it, but for god's sake don't try to replace a day that reflects something real with a fresh myth of national chauvinism.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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