Nationalising Waitangi Day

What did you do on Waitangi Day? Did you reflect on our history and the nation we are becoming?

Of course not, if you were in the majority. You had a holiday. If you gave thought to the “Waitangi” in Waitangi Day, images of Maori protest and confrontation probably swam up.

My colleague John Roughan has argued in the Weekend Herald that those images have been misleading, that the predominant tone was of good cheer and goodwill.

Mr Roughan is an acute and accurate observer. But his careful account is not what television showed you of Waitangi Days past. The images you have had of Waitangi Day and the treaty it is named for are as symbols of division.

They are not the images Australians get of Australia Day or the French of Bastille Day or Americans of Independence Day. Those are national days in the way Waitangi Day has not been since our once-monocultural nation lost its innocence in the 1970s.

The Prime Minister wants a national day for us. It is a profound change she is seeking.

She has specifically chosen to attend two functions which are multicultural, not bicultural. The treaty, she says, is to be respected as the founding document of the nation and then the national day is to “project forward to what we are becoming”.

“Founding document” and “nation”: words with different meanings for different people.

The “founding document” notion gained currency in the late 1980s when Sir Geoffrey Palmer, then Deputy Prime Minister, endorsed it. Soon afterwards the National party adopted the same formula.

But what does it mean? Some read “founding document” as a simple mechanism to legitimise British rule, automatically superseded when that rule was established. On this view, the treaty can have moral but not legal force, unless specifically written into laws passed by the Parliament.

That was never the Maori view. To Maori the treaty was a deal between two political systems. It overarched British rule and overarches, or at least infuses, the constitution now. To some it is (or should be) the constitution. On these views, the treaty implies and requires power-sharing.

But a nation cannot have more than one political power centre, thinks the majority, secure in its numbers and Westminster traditions. The Prime Minister thinks that, too.

Some Maori agree — with a twist. There should be one nation, the Maori nation — or a collectivity of Maori tribal nations. North American “first nation” parlance is increasingly being used here. To some “first nation” adherents, the treaty is a constraint, not a crutch.

At the least, many leading Maori assert, Maori should not only deliver social services to Maori, as they increasingly do, but should decide the appropriate education curriculum, welfare measures and health treatments for Maori. That sort of power-sharing can easily be tied back to the tino rangatiratanga guarantee in article 2 of the treaty. But the government cannot concede even that much, not yet at least.

This tangled argument could, if it goes off the rails, embroil us in serious strife. The Prime Minister wants to reset the compass.

Her decision to attend events yesterday involving cultural diversity, “the country we’re becoming”, is a big step away from Waitangi Day as a bicultural affair between Maori and the Crown.

In a multicultural context, the treaty might be construed as the founding document of a diverse society in a unified nation. This requires, to use the word of one of her ministers, “transcendence” of the treaty and the squabbles it now represents in news media imagery.

This does not mean devaluing the treaty’s role as a mechanism for redressing wrongs, which is what the 1980s Labour government thought it was making of the treaty by giving it limited legal force. Nor does it diminish this cabinet’s genuine commitment to more Maori involvement and decision-making in services and matters that affect Maori.

But “transcendence” does mean recasting the treaty as simply having established the right of all of us to be in this land (with loose guides for protection of Maori) and then “moving on”.

Moving on for the Prime Minister means making Waitangi Day part of her “nation-building” programme, signifying unity amid diversity. She’s nothing if not ambitious.