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.

Comments (10)

by David Savage on February 06, 2012
David Savage


by nommopilot on February 06, 2012

What do we want?

"less political engagement, less debate and more apathy"

When do we want it?


by Tim Watkin on February 07, 2012
Tim Watkin

Mic, nice line, terrible new photo!

by Matthew Percival on February 08, 2012
Matthew Percival

It's the protesting that has marginalised Waitangi Day and made it a day that few New Zealanders care about. What should be a national day of celebration has been hijacked by a minority who seek to further their own political interests.

The lack of respect shown to our democratically elected Prime Minister was appalling. Imagine if a bunch of white people shouted down the Maori King/Queen with a bunch of loudhailers and charged at him/her. Hone would come out and try and tell us all race relations had been set back another 10 years! But when a brown person does it to a white person we use terms like "protest" and "debate".

I hope the Superbowl is on Waitangi Day next year.

by Ben Curran on February 08, 2012
Ben Curran

The difference being that the Maori King is not in a position of power over these hypothetical white protesters. It's less about brown and white and more about lack of/possession of power. If we had a Maori prime minister doing what Key is doing, I am reasonably confident that the protesters would still be there.

It hasn't been hijacked by a minority. in case you haven't been watching, most New Zealanders head to the beach or spend time in back yards on Waitangi day. What we've always done. Celebrating some of what we value as a nation if you want to be generous. Most of the people who tend to get worked up about what goes on at Waitangi are either there, or part of a media organization looking for exciting pictures for the next program/issue. Which is not to say most people don't pay attention, I just don't get the impression that we get all worked up about it.

Politics is a messy game. It should be full of confrontation. It's the place where all our ideas collide and beat the crap out each other before reaching some form of equilibrium. Like it or not, the celebration at Waitangi is a political event. It's as good a place as any for minority voices to be heard.

Calling for minority voices to be silenced out of respect or suggesting that politicians should all work together nicely is to rip the heart out politics and reduce it to nothing more than a Saturday morning cartoon about ponies and rainbows and bunny rabbits. i.e. amusing for children maybe but essentially pointless.

by Matthew Percival on February 08, 2012
Matthew Percival

Yes most New Zealanders do head to the beach or do whatever they do, that's the point! They head to the beach like they do every other summer day. That's not a celebration of nationhood it's just another day in their lives when we should be celebrating our nationhood on this special day.

I celebrated my nationhood by watching the Superbowl. I wish I had something more worthwhile to attend on the day.

I'm not calling for minority voices to be silenced, just to show some respect for our democratically elected leaders.

Besides, they can have the other 364 days of the year to bleat. Why can't we have one day every year where we show some unity and celebrate our nation?

by stuart munro on February 08, 2012
stuart munro

Our democratically elected leaders are not worthy of respect.

by stuart munro on February 08, 2012
stuart munro

Our democratically elected leaders are not worthy of respect.

by Tim Watkin on February 09, 2012
Tim Watkin

I think I've found a way to disagree with both Matthew and Stuart! Of course there's some respect due our political servants/masters (depending on how you see it), but to say that equates to no protest is disrespectful of political debate. 

If Waitangi protests are disrespectful, what was the civil rights movement in the US? Or the Arab Spring? Or the Springbok tour marches? A day when we focus on who we are as a nation is exactly the time for people to habe their say.

Having said that Matthew, I like your point about having something to attend on the day. The US has fireworks displays and events on July 4, ANZAC Day has a dawn service and marches, so why not something here?

by Tony Wallace on February 17, 2012
Tony Wallace

I was at the SOE hui in Wanganui.  I heard speaker after speaker chastise the Government for its hurry to sell assets while substantive treaty discussions were not yet resolved.  A Mana protestor outside held a banner "Can't sell what you don't own".  I concur.  My parents and grandparents built these assets, and they belong to generations yet unborn.

After viewing the asset sales of previous governments, I have come to the conclusion that communal assets cannot be sold without stealing from someone.  I know others will have different ideas.  This is the point, the coming together of cultures with different world views was always going to be challenging.

Essentially Maori are asking for a lien on the property (that is the SOE assets) until relevant treaty matters are settled.  In his message Sir Graham Latimer states:
Others have asked you look at 3 options, to keep the Treaty clause, to let it go, or to change it.  But these options miss the point... ...You must insist on no sales, or at least not before the Maori claim to water rights is heard.

The history of New Zealand is the history of the British Sovereign and the Maori People making deals and breaking deals, war and peace.  To those who would want to take away the Maori voice, is calls from the blood spilt upon the ground, they have earned there voice, and may it never be taken away.

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