John Key's Waitangi Day speech defended February 6 as our national day, acknowledged our willingness to look back and pointed out that we're not a nation of flag wavers. But why not and why shouldn't we be?

There is something about a beginning; about the hope it represents and the faith that it will lead somewhere, the fact that it is always the hardest part and often the truest. Our beginning is Waitangi Day, our national day, and John Key has again demonstrated his gut appreciation of what it means to us as a nation.

To many New Zealanders I suspect the day and the document mean little more than a summer's day off work, but to our sense of nationhood they speak of common cause, concession and commitment, both then and now. And they are worth remembering and waving our flag over. 

Waitangi Day seems to bring out the best in John Key, which always seems surprising for a man often derided as a bucket list PM driven by focus groups and antennae rather than deep political roots. It would be easy to listen to those focus groups, which I suspect speak mostly of division and disdain for our race relations. It would be easy to muck along with those whose sole interest in the day, as Key mentioned in his speech today, "is encompassed by the weather forecast".

But again this year Key didn't take the easy way out. Last year he recognised the Treaty of Waitangi as a living document that we must keep wrestling with. This year he stressed that this remains our national day – not ANZAC Day – and the trend towards more forward-looking debate on this day is due precisely to the fact that we've had the courage over the past generation to look back and face up to some hard truths.

To the many Pakeha who continue to whine about endless settlements and say Maori just need to put the past behind them and move on, Key rightly today said no. The very ability to look forward stems from the courage to look back.

Why? Because the past does not stay still, but walks beside us. Land lost 100 years ago remains lost, wealth and opportunity denied remains denied, and the sense of a wrong done to a family still burns – unless we choose to act. Injustice is not something that goes away on its own; indeed, a rotten foundation will not hold us as a country. The only way to move forward, to get over it, or whatever other cliche you want to trot out, is to square it all away, to put it right, to do justice.

As Key acknowledged today, we are looking forward more, and "mostly, we have the Treaty settlement process to thank for that".

Since Labour began the settlement process 59 deeds of settlement have been signed, 44 of them by National governments and 33 by the Key government alone. The Prime Minister used his speech to glory in that, which is somewhat cynical given that the early settlements needed to cut a path that the rest now walk down with more ease. As noted at the start of this post, beginnings are always the hardest part. But credit where credit's due, National under the leadership of Sir Doug Graham and Chris Finlayson have got more done than the other lot.

You may not have heard about that part of Key's speech because he couldn't resist a dig at the "vocal few who are sometimes apparently unable or unwilling to see the world through any lens other than that of Maori disadvantage". He knew they would be the headline quotes relayed to most Pakeha by the media and trotted them out, rather than asking, say, why and how someone who lives amongst Maori disadvantage every day should see the world through a different lens and whether that's not a view worth listening to.

While he is right to warn that "public goodwill should not be taken for granted", painting protesters as negative trouble-makers only erodes that goodwill a little further. His actions – as he continues to visit Waitangi, listen to the criticism and join in the debate – does him much greater credit than those words.

But well done to him for putting his mana behind Waitangi Day as our national day. And well done to him for not being afraid to praise those who dare to look back. And well done to him for resisting the well-worn populism David Shearer embraced with his hoo-ha about moving the New Year's honours list to Waitangi Day and the need for this to be... yawn... a day of celebration. That's a line that keeps company with "why can't we all just get along" and it shows little understanding of our history... or our future.

The other most telling part of Key's speech came in this paragraph:

From time to time, governments and others have tried to engender a greater sense of national participation around this day. It would be good to see but I’m not sure that we can or should try to force it. We are not by nature a nation of flag-wavers.

I would like to think that a willing government (and media) could make more of this day. But Key may be right. Perhaps that deeper love of nation, pride in our shared past and sense that through settlements and partnership we are building something special at the bottom of the world can't be forced, but must come from within. Perhaps.

But I'm intrigued by the last line: "We are not by nature a nation of flag-wavers".

We are not. We are a reticent people. A nation of explorers, boundary-pushers and democrats. A nation of fair goes, yeah rights and chins raised in greeting. A nation that gets on with it and then enjoys a few quiets. We don't wave flags often out of fear of making too much of a fuss.

I can't really speak for Maori, but Pakeha are very much people of the now. We stem from a people who boarded ship to leave their pasts behind and start anew. And it served us well in a new land far from home. It taught us to get on with it. It kept our sceptism healthy. And happily it stopped us becoming hooray Henrys... or brash Aussies. Shallow commitment to lines on a map only proves Johnson's line that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel".

Still, I think our lack of flag waving needs to change. Just a bit. We need to lift our heads up more often, to look both back to learn our lessons and forward more than three years to plan our prosperity. We should be willing to pat ourselves on the back for the concessions Maori and Pakeha have made to each other. We need to say out loud, just now and then, that we've got something pretty special down here.

So take heed: For all our problems, we are better off than most in the world. We gave women the vote, split atoms, sent kids to school and to the doctor for free, said we'd look after each other from 'cradle to grave', re-invented rugby, gave our lives against facism, stood up for peace, acted to redress historic wrongs, saved a few endangered species, made some nice wines and, by and large, created a great country to raise a family.

I think back to the World Cup and seeing those flags flying from so many cars; there was a sense of unity and possibility in that which we could do with more of. I think of over 50,000 people heading to Australia last year and the lack of possibility they must have seen here. I think that exactly because we're not flag-wavers who think of ourselves as exceptional, that we need to step back now and then to realise exactly how exceptional that is.

And I think that on Waitangi Day at least we should look back to our beginnings with pride, to admire the faith of those who dared, and to wave a flag in their honour.

Comments (3)

by Ewan Morris on February 07, 2013
Ewan Morris

I can't really speak for Maori, but Pakeha are very much people of the now. We stem from a people who boarded ship to leave their pasts behind and start anew. And it served us well in a new land far from home. It taught us to get on with it. It kept our sceptism healthy. And happily it stopped us becoming hooray Henrys... or brash Aussies.

Hmmm.... Doesn't that describe the origins of non-Aboriginal Australians too? I've argued here previously that Australians are not really as self-confident about their national identity as New Zealanders seem to believe, and that Australian flag-waving is a recent development. For me the question is why many Australians have (to my regret, as an ex-Aussie) abandoned their traditional reticence about flag-waving, while New Zealanders have not.


by Tim Watkin on February 07, 2013
Tim Watkin

Fair point Ewan. I'm tempted to make a dig about those who chose to come versus those who had no choice, but realise that's a terrible generalisation. Maybe the greater number of continentals in Australia? Maybe the heat? But seriously, where do you think the difference stems from? And what makes you say Aussies are less reticent than they were?

by Ewan Morris on February 07, 2013
Ewan Morris

What makes me say Australians are less reticent about flag-waving than they were? Just personal observation. I don't remember much flag-waving nationalism when I was growing up in Australia. I think the traditional Australian view (much like the traditional New Zealand one) was wary of self-promotion, either individual or national: don't have tickets on yourself, don't big-note yourself, etc. Now, however, when I go back to Australia I'm certainly struck by the much greater presence of flags in the landscape, and of jingoism in the media.

What explains the change in Australia and the difference that has emerged between the two countries? Very hard to say. A more ethnically diverse immigrant population, as you allude to? Greater American influence in Australia (and lingering Anglophilia here)? The anxiety of being a nation (Australia, that is) that is big enough to want some presence in the world, but too small to have much influence?

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