An enforced celebration would not only be almost impossible to achieve, it would also strip the day of much of its meaning.

Clang the tambourines, inflate the balloons and festoon the May-Pou (Maypole) with ribbons - it's Happy Waitangi Day.

So goes Labour leader David Shearer's version of Waitangi utopia.

Every year there are calls for Waitangi Day to be celebrated the same way other countries celebrate their national days.


Some pick the United States' Independence Day. Shearer's example was Australia Day - an unfortunate choice given Australia's record on indigenous rights.

This is the seventh Waitangi Day I have covered. The first was the peaceful day of 2003. The next was the far from peaceful year of 2004 when Don Brash was hit by mud, which flew past Mark Sainsbury's moustache to land on Brash's head. In the same year, Helen Clark and her fellow MPs, including Tariana Turia, were jostled heavily as they walked on to the marae. It was to be the last time either woman went there.

I was there again in 2009 when the Popata brothers shoved and grabbed Prime Minister John Key, broken arm and all, sending Pita Sharples tumbling in the process. Had there been any illusions that the new relationship between National and the Maori Party - and the decision to allow the Maori flag to fly - would settle things down, they were dispelled at that point.

Even Winston Peters was offended at the display last year when Key's attempt to speak was shouted down by anti-mining protesters. This year brought the stand-off between kuia over who would lead Key on to Te Tii - although that was more embarrassing for the marae than the Government.

There are unedifying sights. But the two days Waitangi is spread over are both very different, and together they make one symbolic whole. That should not be as easily dismissed as Shearer would like.

There is the tension of February 5, a day on which it is possible to feel whether trouble is in the air from the moment you arrive at the Lower Marae. It rips the scab off the partially healed wounds of history.

Waitangi Day itself provides the healing again.

The Dawn Service - a mix of humour, prayer and reflection - is attended by equal numbers of Maori and Pakeha, shuffling quietly up in the pre-dawn chill before settling to await the prayers and sermon. It is usually delivered with a dollop of good humour, although in 2009 it took the form of a Doomsday prophecy of a major earthquake in Wellington.


An enforced celebration would not only be almost impossible to achieve, it would also strip the day of much of its meaning.

So Key takes a different view from Shearer. His decision to return year after year, whatever the provocation, may have started out as a political move to make him look better than Helen Clark.

But any cynicism attached to it has since evaporated and it has turned into something he appears to genuinely believe in. Waitangi is one of the few occasions on which the Prime Minister shows his reflective side. Although he has spoken out about the activists - warning yesterday that they risked alienating the public goodwill that now existed for Treaty settlements - he sees the importance of the day, protests and all, in symbolic terms.

Having instituted an annual Prime Minister's Waitangi Address in 2009, this year he said changing the day into one with a sense of "national participation" would be difficult to force through - and nor did he believe it should be.

Instead, he said, Waitangi Day was a "unique" day and one on which the weight of history was felt most acutely.

Key also, quite rightly, observed that New Zealanders were not, by nature, a nation of flagwavers.

Other than at rugby games, that is a more realistic acknowledgment of the national psyche than David Shearer's rather naive hopes of Kiwis bellowing out "Happy Waitangi Day" each year and dancing at the pure joy of being a New Zealander on that day.

It is the day for the Government to be held to account for the promises made in 1840 and to focus on where that goes next. Key's recognition of that is why he returns each year.

So while the rest of New Zealand was sloping off to the beach - and praise the ancestors who decided February was a good day for a Treaty signing - the Government ministers were lined up in front of a crowd of iwi leaders from around the country.

The regular Iwi Leaders' Forum meeting is one of the more constructive things to emerge from the modern Waitangi - an expression of post-settlement partnership. It is also a robust affair - the iwi leaders grill the usually high-powered panel of ministers who turn up with little mercy. Whether it is on Te Tii Marae or at that Iwi Leaders' Forum, there are no chances to avoid the elephants in the room at Waitangi.

New Zealanders can - and do - mark the day however they wish. But the Government does not and should not have that luxury. There is nothing wrong with celebration - but it is aimed at remembering a point in history and so there is nothing wrong with an annual twinge of discomfort either.

Some years it may be more warts than blossoms. But it is still recognisably, and importantly, ours. As they say in France, whose national day stems from the rather violent storming of the Bastille: Vive la difference.

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