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A day at Waitangi, and at the beach

Keri Mills

The Prime Minister says she hopes every New Zealander, at least once in their lifetimes, gets a chance to go to Waitangi for Waitangi Day. Firstly, because it’s a special place to be, and secondly so they can see how it differs from “what you might see from time to time in the public domain”.

Last year was my first Waitangi Day at Waitangi. I went along with some Pākehā friends, for whom it was also a new experience. We were all surprised by the festival mood, the music, the stalls, the delicious home-made iceblocks. We were all back again this year.

Every year around Waitangi Day there is debate about what the day is, and whether it should continue as it is. So what is Waitangi Day? Is it a day of protest? A day of commemoration? A day of celebration? A day at the beach?

A day of protest

February 6th was one of the focal points for Māori protest in the 1970s and there have been protests, small and large, at many of the commemorative events over the years. Some use Waitangi Day events to speak out about the issues that concern them. Tame Iti explains in this video that he and other activists would protest at Waitangi in order to provoke discussion and make people think, and he says that Waitangi is an appropriate venue for this.

Scholars have criticised the media for overemphasising protest and controversy at Waitangi Day. In 2019 the controversial speakers at Te Tii marae, Don Brash and Brian Tamaki, got a lot of media attention. Several stories noted the rather un-newsworthy incident of a woman who “seemed to be” shouting at politicians. More exciting protests from past years were dredged up into new stories. There were also a couple of confusing articles that used the word “protest” to describe something that didn’t actually seem to be a protest.

Waitangi Day is a day of protest, but it is not always, or only a day of protest.

A day of celebration

Is Waitangi Day a day of celebration? This is a second popular frame, especially for Waitangi Days that pass by without serious protest action. There has been a long tension over whether or not it is appropriate to “celebrate” Waitangi Day, as a national day, in the face of the failure to honour the Treaty, and the ongoing inequalities between Māori and Pākehā.

Sue Abel in her 1997 book Shaping the News: Waitangi Day on Television identified three “discourses on unity” which are still in evidence in media coverage today (pp.39-40). The “we are all one people” kind of unity, a denial of Māori desires for self-determination, is still perpetuated by Don Brash and the like. A watered-down version of this is the “we’re moving together, but still have a way to go” idea, that acknowledges some past wrongdoing, but does not see the need for serious structural change in the present. Karl Du Fresne’s piece was an obvious example here, but these ideas are implicit in much reporting focusing on “success” and “progress”. Lastly Abel identified the “unity in diversity” discourse that recognises the need for structural change, and affirms difference while addressing inequality. This was, and still is, most often voiced by Māori, such as Sir Kim Workman in his criticism of Māori-Crown relationships: “It never ends up as a partnership. It ends up with the Crown or government agencies co-opting Māori values or principles into a western model of delivery. It never works.”

A day of commemoration

The word more commonly used for official Waitangi Day events is “commemoration.” This would imply it’s a day to remember the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/ The Treaty of Waitangi, and what it has meant over time.

The events at Waitangi are light on history. Some commentators use the day as an opportunity to reflect on the past, and the media are beginning to provide information about the Treaty in interesting ways. One excellent example has been this docudrama produced by TVNZ for a Waitangi Day 2011 screening.

If Waitangi Day is a day to remember history, this is not done systematically or well. This year the Prime Minister stumbled over a journalist’s question on the contents of the first and second articles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Some of the reporting of this showed an equally poor knowledge of the articles (they don’t have “names”, for a start). This is all good fodder for those who are currently petitioning for the teaching of New Zealand history in schools to be compulsory.

A day at the beach

In 2005, a UMR omnibus survey found that 71% of New Zealanders did not celebrate Waitangi Day. Whether or not they’re at the beach, for the majority it seems the day is not spent in any kind of reflection on the nation or its history. There doesn’t seem any great harm in this, though Lizzie Marvelly reminds us that not having to think about Waitangi Day is a privilege not available to all.

Perhaps it’s easier to define Waitangi Day by what it isn’t. It’s not, much to Mike Hosking’s disgust, a day of rampant nationalism. This is a great thing. I count my lucky red stars that my countrypeople seem disinclined to wrap themselves up in the flag, don matching jandals and parade the streets.

It’s not a day of consensus about who we are, or where we’re heading as a country. Hooray for that as well. Hooray for the debate, for the space, te marae ātea, te umu pokapoka a Tūmatauenga, where we can have these exchanges. The Prime Minister called for Māori to hold the government accountable on Waitangi Day for its work on Māori affairs. She talked about what the government had achieved to date, emphasising there was more to do. Waitangi Day is an annual conversation about our cultural relationships.

Let’s let Waitangi Day be what it is. Sometimes it’s a day of protest, sometimes not, sometimes a day at the beach, sometimes at a local commemoration, sometimes a pilgrimage to the place itself (which is right by the beach, by the way, for those who are torn). The day at Waitangi isn’t, for the most part, a solemn day of commemoration, nor a feisty day of political exchange. Mostly it’s a bunch of musical performances and stalls. It’s delicious mussel fritters and quick lessons on Te Reo words in New Zealand Sign Language. It’s a fun day out.

Our national day, as it stands, is a day of what the political philosopher Andrew Sharp might call “muddle and fudge,” a space where conflicting ideas can co-exist. In his book Justice and the Māori he hopes for “…a more enlightened, a more principled, a more cheerful muddle and fudge, and not just an instinctive reaction to uncomfortably recognized differences. Righteousness is easy; the sustaining of political society is not, and it is a much greater thing. It means really living with difference, hence living with injustice, and continually negotiating its distribution” (p26).

Every Waitangi Day the wero is laid down, and the wero is picked up. On we go.

Keri Mills
About the author

Keri Mills

Dr. Keri Mills is a senior researcher at the Policy Observatory, AUT. Her research specialties are in Māori/Pākehā and Māori/government relationships in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the history of conservation. Her PhD on the relationship between DOC and iwi at Tongariro National Park was awarded by the Australian National University in 2013. She has previously worked at the University of Auckland, the Office of Treaty Settlements, and the University of the South Pacific.