How to keep Waitangi Day on the straight & narrow

Waitangi Day events played out more peacefully than expected, but the risk of division remains if we don't pay attention to public opinion

Another Waitangi Day has come and gone. While there were still a few protesters they were pretty nominal. There has been the usual dialogue around the event as the country struggles to settle just what to do with the day.

At the moment the trend seems to be to turn it into a day of celebrations. I said it was quieter than I expected – I had been expecting a reasonably fiery forum at the Lower Marae after reading Manu Paul's (Maori Council) rather intemperate comments in the media leading up to the day. He had been quoted as saying the Crown's behaviour towards Maori had been "brutal". While that comment may not have been unreasonable in the period from the 1860's through to the turn-of-the-century, it is simply unreasonable now.

As well, there was the high profile argument over which kuia would accompany the Prime Minister onto the marae which the media dubbed 'grannygate'. After the dust had settled, reports seemed to be consistently telling the public that the day had gone off remarkably well.

The last twenty years have seen real progress made in settling outstanding grievances, beginning with Doug Graham's initiatives of the 90's then strongly and actively supported by ministers, from both National and Labour, throughout the succeeding period. There have been bumps in the road – remember the 'fiscal envelope' debate. Foreshore and Seabed too.

Progress with settlements has been made possible by changes in attitudes across public opinion generally to the way our 'settler' governments acted in the early days after the Treaty was signed – what we learned had happened way back then was no longer acceptabe to the New Zealand public. The extent of attitude change is evidenced when you see that Naida Glavish – whole helped settle the grannygate dispute between Titewhai Harawira and another kuia, Ani Taurua – was sacked from her job at the old Post Office for welcoming customers with "kia ora" instead of speaking in English. That would never happen now – almost the opposite. In this context redress for past grievances was appropriate and supported, although in fairness it took time for the public mood to come around.

In the overall scheme of things this is all relatively recent, but since it has been achieved there have been settlements that would not have been conceptually possible or even considered in earlier periods. A fair and balanced assessment would conclude that Aoteroa/New Zealand is in a significantly better head-space on Treaty matters than it was before this settlement activity began. Public support has stood behind addressing these grievances from the past, and just as well too, as without public support the whole process could grind to a halt or even turn backwards.

As a nation we should be careful to maintain that public support. The mood will change if any party acts immoderately, and that mood change will quickly be picked up as it was with the response to Don Brash's Orewa speech. The poll results following Orewa that turned the previous position on its head were sudden, and to the commentariat, surprising. It's essential for keeping the base of assured future public support in place that the demands and rhetoric on both sides are kept reasonable – within the bounds that reasonable public opinion will accept.

As I see it there are a few salient points this year. Maori proprietary interests in toanga exist regardless of whether they are state-owned assets or not and a mature nation will sort those issues out in a sensible and constructive way. People find it hard to understand how "treasures" can possibly include items neither party knew existed at the time the Treaty was signed. So water is rightfully included, because it was valued then as a source of food and life, but that approach precludes the claim to the radio spectrum and other such like claims.

Another angle – support would be encouraged if we could see this settlement process leading to real and genuine improvements in the statistics for all Maori and not just the creation of another elite.

Finally, there should be a finishing point. When we make settlements they should be full and final, so we can collectively as a nation resolve these matters and then get on with life and look ahead, without being impeded by thoughts that we still carry unresolved grievances from the past.