Happy Waitangi Day (and why protest is good for us)

Another national day, another chance for us to feel out who we are as New Zealanders. And another day of protest. But those who condemn the protests should stop whining and stop to think what really matters to us as a nation

As the sun sets on another Waitangi Day, I want to offers three cheers – one for Prime Minister John Key, one for the Waitangi protesters and one for all New Zealanders who got out and enjoyed themselves.

It was another Big Day – of reflection, pomp and protest at Waitangi and of concerts, sport and get-togethers throughout the rest of the country; all of which paints a pretty well-rounded picture of who we are as peoples together alone in this far flung land.

The Prime Minister took the road to Waitangi, meeting head on the anger of local Maori, Mana party supporters and a mixed bag of other protesters. There were scuffles and heckles – anger at the government's plan to sell minority stakes in some Crown assets and fear over deep sea drilling. The interesting observation politically is that those few dozen protesters, often easily marginalised, were expressing a point of view shared by the majority of New Zealanders – that asset sales are a daft idea. So the government was hardly in a position to mock.

But as Key rightly said, the biggest problem for him was that the protesters had megaphones while the Prime Minister lacked even a microphone to respond and make his case.

Rather than get his pip or make a scene, Key vowed to keep going to Waitangi to mark the day. He stressed the value of debate and the "ongoing" importance of the Treaty of Waitangi. That's to his credit. He may not like the sort of attention he gets there, but leadership involves listening and fronting, even if it's uncomfortable to step out of the Crown limo and hear people's anger.

To paraphrase Tana Umaga, being Prime Minister isn't a game of tiddlywinks.

Some New Zealanders fret that the constant protest on the day demeans the government and sets the wrong tone for the day. I couldn't disagree more.

What is democratic government without the opportunity for minority groups within the society to voice their concerns and speak directly to those in power? Is the tone we want for the day fake smiles and sweetness at all costs?

Protest pays its respects to power by taking it seriously enough to challenge it. The fact we allow voices to be raised rather than quashed by force or hushed for the sake of a quiet life is something we should take price in as a nation. It's a rare sign of maturity and self-confidence in our young country.

The fact that Key was willing to deal with that as part of his job says something about his self-confidence as well, and enhances the dignity of the office that so many people suddenly seem so concerned about.

Would it be preferable if the government protected the power and dignity of the office with tanks and guns as in Syria right now? Or if our politeness were to overcome our passion? We were once damned as a "passionless people" – that's not a characteristic I yearn to see more of on our national day.

I love that some feel strongly so about our national identity; strongly enough to fight for it, to contest it, to imagine something better and act on it. Just months after such a low election turnout, do those who tut-tut at the Waitangi protests really want to argue for less political engagement, less debate and more apathy? Have we become that timid?

A truly national day makes room for a nation's many parts, including the voice of dissent. If I have to choose between "the dignity of the office" and the voice of the people, I'll choose non-violent free speech every time. I want to hear the anger, not least because silence leads to disenfranchisement and ultimately to violence. It's when the shouting stops that the bomb-making begins, so let's celebrate that our national day encourages citizens to speak their truths rather than kill for them.

The good news for the future is that we can allow this protest in the knowledge that it's not forever; it's a stage and we are addressing, or should I say redressing, the core concerns. Since the 1970s we have been undergoing a Maori renaissance that has both inspired and discomforted many. Part of that has involved dealing with historic grievances, a process which is time-consuming and fraught with complications.

We are, by my guess, over half way down this path. Treaty settlements are moving along, if slowly. Maori have shown remarkable restraint in asking for a tiny portion of what was taken from them; Pakeha have been willing to give up power in a way few former colonies have willing done. This is good. Very good.

Eventually, this generation (or two) of protest will pass and other traits of the Treaty and the partnership it guarantees will come to the fore.

So well done to us all in these tiny islands – the last, least and loveliest. In all its discomfort, ceremony and good humour, a happy Waitangi day to you, and many more to come.