Feb 5, 2013

Reflections on Waitangi Day

I think of Waitangi Day (WD) as a metaphor for the national mood and the health of the bicultural partnership. For an illustration, compare and contrast WD 2009 and 2012.

WD 2009:

Significant for its sense of optimism, WD 2009 came off of the back of National’s election win and their partnership with the Maori Party. The optimism of that win and the symbolism of that bicultural partnership defined WD 2009. For Maori, the day represented a break from the foreshore and seabed era and a realisation of an old Maori ambition – a kaupapa Maori party in but not of the government. For non-Maori New Zealanders, what defined the day was the (vacant) optimism that the Prime Minister’s election win created. Early indications suggested that John Key was not cut from the same cloth as Helen Clark, Jenny Shipley, Jim Bolger or any other Prime Minister since Sir Keith Holyoake. Key represented a break from the radicalism of the fourth and fifth Labour and National governments respectively and a swing against the perceived nanny stateism of the fifth Labour government.

As a result of these factors, nothing much happened and no remembers the day. Well, other than the Popata brothers having a crack at the Prime Minister, but their actions were an outlier. Brent Edwards told RNZ that, compared to the past four years, WD 2009 was “much more peaceful” and “much more of a celebration”.* Pita Sharples encapsulated the mood when he spoke of the “covenant” between Maori and Pakeha and the “hope” he had for the future.**

WD 2012

WD 2012 is best remembered, rightly or wrongly, for the Popata brothers (again) and the late Sir Paul Holmes (and a few thousand off-their-tits Kiwis in London). The day came off of the back of significant tension between the Maori Party, Mana and Labour and antipathy towards the National government, including their support for off-shore oil drilling. Add to that the perception that the Maori Party had betrayed the optimism and faith of 2009, well, the conditions for vicious protest were set. Maori Party MPs were labelled “John Key’s niggers”, speakers were drowned out under protest and marches were held. Sir Paul Holmes captured the non-Maori mood that year: frustration with what was perceived as unjustified protest. After all, the Maori Party were in government. Add to that a stagnant economy, worsening unemployment and a series of disasters in 2011. It’s probably no surprise that the national mood wasn’t, for want of a better word, tolerant.

The irony was that the Maori Party in government is partly what fueled the protests. Maori felt that the party had over compromised in government (thus betraying the optimism and faith of 2009). Include a Maori unemployment rate that was worsening, static Maori education statistics and negligible improvement in Maori crime and, well, protest becomes almost inevitable.

(It’s a sort of interesting to note that, almost prophetically, Holmes' piece set the tone for what was a turbulent political year)

WD 2013

Treaty settlements are continuing apace, the flame war between the Maori and Mana parties is smouldering rather than burning and the constitutional review is beginning. On the other hand, asset sales and wai rights top the agenda. With that in mind, the conditions are present (although absent a catalyst for action on the day). The national mood is, I think, also in flux. The conditions are present, think wai rights and a perceived pro-Maori constitutional review, but a catalyst is absent. Having said that, John Ansell is planning on an appearance. Then again, he is hardly an explosive catalyst in the way that, say, a Supreme Court judgment that awarded significant wai rights to Maori. Anyway, I think these factor do not define WD alone. Hundreds of events are held across the country. Events that, I think, better catch the potential of WD better than much of what happens at Te Tii.

*Radio NZ has a collection of audio from WD 2009. Listening to the pieces gives you a sense that it was, like Brent said, a more peaceful and celebratory day than in previous years.

**That speech was, I think, Pita Sharples at his best - a conciliator and a cross-cultural statesman. It’s a pity that at many times he has failed to live up to that potential.

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