John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: We're stuck with the day and stuck with the venue

PM John Key worked out a while ago that walking away from Waitangi was not possible. Photo / Sarah Ivey
PM John Key worked out a while ago that walking away from Waitangi was not possible. Photo / Sarah Ivey

It is a pretty sad indictment on the state of New Zealand's national day that Waitangi Day is judged as something of a success if it is relatively trouble-free.

Of course, one person's idea of trouble is another's legitimate protest.

Those who complain about many things Maori and all things Treaty need reminding that Waitangi Day serves a more than useful political service as a safety valve for Maori grievance.

However, washing the country's dirty laundry in public does little for fostering notions of unity and nationhood.

In recent years the protests have become more personal with prime ministers and leaders of the opposition seen as legitimate targets for both verbal and occasional physical abuse.

Add the complicating and intimidating factor of the Harawira family to the mix and the result is an agglomeration of nervous tension ahead of February 6 which annually saps Waitangi Day of dignity.

This year's build-up has seen some unseemly rivalry within Ngapuhi over who would welcome the Prime Minister on to Te Tii Marae. But who is going to stop tribal elders from indulging in such behaviour - especially when John Key and David Shearer pussyfoot around the fighting. Key, however, worked out a while ago that walking away from Waitangi was not possible for someone counting on the support of the Maori Party in governing.

And even if he wasn't, the reality is that not going to Waitangi does not solve the conundrum surrounding Waitangi Day - that as the birthplace of the nation, Waitangi cannot be exorcised from celebrating February 6 (if celebrating is the right word) as the national day.

Judging from his remarks, Shearer, who was understood to have been reluctant to keep returning to Waitangi each year, has reached the same conclusion.

The great bulk of the public has long felt alienated from the political theatre in the Far North. Some have voted with their alarm clocks to make it to dawn services on Anzac Day - their de facto national day. Otherwise, there is little agreement or enthusiasm for an alternative national day.

That much was apparent from Peter Dunne's 2005 private member's bill replacing Waitangi Day with a New Zealand Day and which drew the grand total of 22 submissions before being voted down.

The select committee considering the bill warned such a change could foster social disharmony.

In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The trouble is Waitangi Day is broke - and seriously so. But it can't be fixed.

Put another way, you can take Waitangi Day out of Waitangi, but you can't take Waitangi out of Waitangi Day.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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