Waitangi Week

Here Comes Waitangi Day: Prepare to Cringe

Why the national holiday will never be all backyard cricket and barbecues, no matter how much the silent majority want it to be.

by Morgan Godfery
02 February 2017, 5:00am

Every year Waitangi Day "cringe" runs on timetable: optimism for breakfast, angst for lunch, anger for dinner, and rinse and repeat next year. In the run-up to this year's cringe three things are almost certainly going to happen. Someone in the media will plea for a national holiday "like Australia Day."  Someone in the comment section will declare "New Zealand has the best race relations in the world". And the Prime Minister will invent a reason or reasons for ditching the pōwhiri at Te Tii Marae on February 6.

Granted, number three is running early with Bill English, the country's accidental Prime Minister, confirming he'll cut and run, and number one and two are probably circulating in the stinking bowels of 4Chan and Reddit. We're still waiting on Mike Hosking's devastating take, though he might struggle to best John Armstrong's take: Waitangi Day is "the annual parade of the pathetic" and "the (largely silent) majority has never had a say when it comes to [the day's] arrangements."

Imagine that, if the old Nixonian mob—the so-called silent majority—had their way on Waitangi Day. It'd be all backyard cricket and barbecues, New Zealand flags and 18-packs of Double Brown. No moaning allowed. Protesting is banned. Captain Hobson's "he iwi kotahi tātou," we are now one people, becomes the national slogan and someone slaps it on a t-shirt—our own version of "love it or leave it." Bill English appoints his predecessor, John Key, the country's cheerleader-in-chief. "

It sounds awful, right?

Well, maybe it doesn't sound so bad, but let me translate. Underneath the noisy appeals for something closer to the phoney patriotism of Australia Day, underneath the wild op-eds condemning Māori protestors, is a denial—Māori have no right or reason to protest their lot. The delicate term is "sit down and shut up." This is why Bill English refuses to visit Te Tii Marae for the Waitangi Day pōwhiri. The Marae is one place where Māori set the terms. Neither he nor the imagined majority are empowered on the Marae.

In other words: Bill English, the straight up the guts farmer, the politician who survived a hiding from Helen Clark, the celebrity boxer, is afraid. 

In his defence, there are some things to fear. Tame Iti spat at a Prime Minister. Titewhai Harawira reduced another Prime Minister to a shaking wreck. An aspiring Prime Minister ate mud. The Popata brothers had a go at the cheerleader-in-chief. I suppose that, with a history like this, it's easy to argue Waitangi Day represents "grievance" (or bullying, take your pick). But the mischief and protest at Te Tii is more than over the top political theatre. Instead it's where the national story collides with Māori realities.

For more than a century Pākehā society held a monopoly on the national story: the Treaty was a rat-eaten relic; Māori were destined to assimilate; and New Zealand had the "best race relations in the world." Waitangi Day was a celebration of New Zealand exceptionalism rather than an acknowledgement of broken promises. "The arrangements [were]," as Bill English might put it, "[more] respectful for New Zealand and New Zealanders."

But this is history as self-exoneration—and it isn't real. Waitangi Day is where Māori pushback against the myths society clings to: the Treaty is, in fact, a living document; Māori retain their identity; and New Zealand race relations must improve. The health, wealth and education gaps exist and they exist off the back of the broken promises of the Treaty. Waitangi Day is where Māori reveal New Zealand's separate realities.

I'll concede this might sound like a glib account of history, perhaps straying too close to the Australian debate between the white blindfold and black armband versions of history (meaning on one side a triumphant narrative of post-colonial progress and on the other side a miserable account of colonial theft and exploitation). But it's essential context if you're going to understand the protest and theatre, the dawn service at the Treaty grounds and the community events across the country as not just a contesting over opposing versions of history but an effort to build a shared past.

Protest is essential here. It's the necessary corrective to people who insist there's no special relationship between tangata whenua—Māori—and tangata tiriti (people of the Treaty). If it weren't for people like Dun Mihaka mooning Princess Diana and Prince Charles, the country could've gone on pretending everything is sweet as, no traumas exist, no redress is necessary. Colonisation was a distant event and not an ongoing process, or something like that.

Sure, in the country's defence governments are helping right the wrongs of the past. Think Treaty settlements where claimants and the government agree to redress and a shared history. This is what progress looks like, thanks to protest and dissent. Yet even with Treaty settlements—even with a shared history—there's no mode of empathy that can replicate the psychic harm of knowing that, as a Māori, you still stand to lose everything: our language is on life support; our land is, for the most part, in other people's hands; and our neighbours will cringe when we say so.  

But Waitangi Day is one of the few platforms for saying so. Cringing is the cost of being a New Zealander. 

Follow Morgan on Twitter.