I think that calls to dump our current national anthem are a "change the national flag" moment for the current Government. But I also have sympathy with a Government spokesperson who said wearily in response to media inquiries…"There are far more important priorities the Government is focused on."
Momentum for the change is apparently driven by the inappropriateness of the words of verse 1 and a preference for the words of verse 2 because they are more inclusive once the line "Men of every creed and race" is amended to "Those of every creed and race." The intention is to make the anthem more encompassing of our new Kiwi citizens.
So where did the anthem come from? I was surprised to learn that we actually have two official anthems – God Defend New Zealand and God Save the Queen. I thought God Save the Queen was dead and buried long ago but apparently it officially remains a national anthem of our country and is of equal status to God Defend.
Thomas Bracken wrote the words to God Defend New Zealand as a poem. He was a poet, journalist, farm hand, storekeeper, gold fossicker and for a short time a Dunedin politician. He sounds like one of those blokes who can turn their hand to anything. He was born in Ireland. His parents died early, and he was sent out to an uncle in Victoria, Australia as a 12-year old. He came to New Zealand when he was 25 and had an interesting career. His reputation as a budding poet apparently preceded him and he quickly established himself in the Dunedin literary scene. He continued his writing but also became a mentor for other poets and writers through his editorship of the local Saturday Advertiser newspaper.
I became interested in Bracken because according to his Wikipedia entry he supported the "egalitarian polices" of Governor Sir George Grey and also advocated for sovereignty for Māori, criticising the Government for what he saw as breaches of its obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. I've often pondered how, with no prior knowledge of Māori, had he arrived at such a position. There are several pointers to how that might have happened.
The first was his early life as a Catholic boy in Ireland in 1843 in County Monaghan on the Irish border with Northern Ireland. County Monaghan was colonised by English and Scottish families following the Irish rebellion of the 1640s and the defeat of the Irish forces. Today the county is a known strong hold of Sinn Fein – the Irish nationalist political movement - which although established many years after Bracken had left, gives an indication of the ongoing political leanings of the County inhabitants. Bracken was probably a committed Irish nationalist and that stance might be reflected in the fact that his poem makes absolutely no reference to English royalty; unlike the sycophantic God Save the Queen.
Bracken also authored two books with Māori themes; Lays of the land of Māori and Moa and Musings in Māoriland. There is another long shot which might help explain his stance, one of them linked to the actual words of the national anthem. When Bracken arrived in New Zealand the pursuit of the Māori independence guerrilla leader Te Kooti was in full flight. Te Kooti's fighting flag was adorned with three stars. The anthem line of "Guard Pacific's triple star" is suggested by some to be a reference to Te Kooti's flag rather than to the country's three islands; North, South and Stewart, which is the usual interpretation.
One other point. Dunedin and Otago in the 1800s was home to many disaffected Scots and Irish – both groups having a beef with the rule of the English establishment in their homelands; the Scots over the highland clearances which had seen them thrown off their lands by English aristocrats and the Irish had suffered the travails of the great potato famine of 1845 which had forced many of them to emigrate in desperation with no assistance from their English overlords. It is no wonder that the Dunedin politicians found common cause with dispossessed Maori.
The music for God Defend New Zealand was composed by another Dunedinite, John Woods and first performed in public in 1878. As a further subtle indication of Bracken's sovereignty sympathies, the cover of the first performance programme features the Royal Standard flag and the Māori Sovereignty flag.
Buddy Mikaere: New model needed for potential Maori land development
Buddy Mikaere: Let's hail the delicacy that is the New Zealand mussel
In 1976 Garth Henry Latta from Dunedin presented a petition to Parliament asking God Defend New Zealand to be made the national anthem. With the permission of the Queen it was gazetted as the country's second national anthem on November 21, 1977, on equal standing with God Save the Queen.
Wind it forward to 1999 and before 70,000 people at a packed Twickenham Stadium in London where the All Blacks are about to take on England. Hinewehi Mohi steps up to the microphone and without permission sings the national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, in Māori. I can remember sitting on the couch watching that on TV and thinking "wow that's different!" The All Blacks went on to win handsomely 30 points to 16 but a storm was unleashed back home. Mohi was vilified for singing the anthem in Māori with much of the talk back radio feedback thinly veiled racist abuse. But for those who thought the Māori lyrics are recent - that's not so. They are almost of the same vintage as Bracken's poem being written by Native Land Court Judge TH Smith in 1878 at the request of Sir George Grey, this time in his role as Premier of the country.
Mohi later said that she saw singing the national anthem in te reo as being just an extension of the All Black haka but in my view maybe she had been a little naive about her enthusiasm in wanting to share another aspect of Māori culture with an international audience. At the next match at that 1999 tournament, against France, she was instructed to sing the anthem only in English. The All Blacks lost.
I'm not saying the game result and the singing of the anthem are linked but the rugby union took the hint and as everyone knows the national anthem as now sung at every rugby test, is the first verse – in Māori and then in English. It has in fact become standard on all occasions where the anthem is sung.
Criticism of Australia's anthem which has the line "..for we are young and free" thus ignoring the 10,000 year-old indigenous occupation of the land, has prompted another look at the words of our anthem. One Christian faith group tags the anthem as being subversive in that it does not mention the Queen once but mentions God 19 times.
Canterbury University academic Bronwyn Hayward, notes that our anthem is "the only explicitly pacifist anthem in the world and in the present global era it's also worth celebrating its explicit statement of values that resist 'division, corruption envy and hate". I'm sure Bracken would be well pleased that his poem has evolved to be a bi-cultural national icon.
As for me? Well I'm more than happy with the anthem the way it is. Some might criticise its tune as being a dirge, but I don't think that. I've been at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the heart of the "enemy" lair when our national anthem has been sung in all its dirgeful glory… you'd be hard pressed to find a prouder Kiwi.