It's time our national day marked a start not an end

It’s Waitangi Day on Monday. What does it mark?

It marks the utmost end of the holiday season, the last holiday before Easter. Schools are back.

When workers won two weeks holiday (then three, then four) in awards, it was tacked on to Christmas. Thus did unreliable January become our holiday month.

The Europeans know better. They holiday in August, the equivalent of our February, when the sun is more reliable.

So wouldn’t we be better to leave Christmas in its own frenetic box and worked on through January? We could start the holiday season in February relaxed, not in an end-of-year frazzle.

Then Waitangi Day could symbolise not the gloom of school and work but the lightness of vacation, not an end but a beginning.

That would better reflect what Waitangi Day is supposed to say about our history — that signing the Treaty of Waitangi was to be a beginning, not an end.

In fact, for the majority at the time of the signing (now the minority) it turned out to signify an end — to a way of life and customs, to control of much of their economic base, to pride of place in this land.

For the minority in 1840 (now the majority), who engineered that ending, the Treaty was a beginning: a new life in a new land, with “progress” as the byword.

But by the 1980s that 1840 future-glow had darkened as the Treaty became a focus for the now-minority’s protest and anger and the now-majority’s consequential uncertainty and unease. Waitangi Day became a day for questioning, not celebrating, our history.

Listen to Sid Jackson’s words on Australian television in March 1989: “Maoris will inevitably accept, as other indigenous peoples in other lands have [he instanced Fiji and New Caledonia], that there is only one way by which we will get our land back and that is by taking it back, if necessary through armed struggle. Armed struggle is totally inevitable.”

For the 1840-minority-turned-1980s-majority such language and the scuffles which accompanied it remade the Treaty from the symbol of harmony and unity its drafters intended into a symbol of discontent and division.

Yet the political, official and judicial elites were by the late 1980s trying to remake the Treaty into a symbol of reconciliation and rebirth by addressing historical grievances and accommodating Maori demands aimed at recovering their culture, an economic base and primacy of a sort (as tangata whenua, first arrivals) in the land.

This unnerved or angered many among the once-minority-now-majority. Two years ago at this time Don Brash gave political voice to their nervousness and anger when at Orewa he spoke against treating Maori as other than equal citizens before the law.

Brash’s bother was “separatism”, as embodied in an emphatic statement by Pita Sharples (whom now Brash wants to make a political mate) on the same 1989 programme as Jackson: “We will now determine our own future from now on.”

Brash is all for “choice” but the Waananga o Aotearoa and the like have taken “choice” too far for him. Self-determination amounts to “choice” only when it doesn’t upset or intrude on the majority’s determined way of doing things. That goes for things spiritual and special consultation and educational programmes and all “race-based” treatment and funding.

For those who felt deliverance on hearing, or hearing of, Brash’s 2004 speech, the Treaty had come to symbolise the end of a comfortingly single-frame society.

They preferred the Treaty to be an antique, akin to our other misplaced symbols: a distant foreign Queen as head of state, a British flag with a tacked-on Southern Cross, a name transposed from Europe and a national anthem enjoining us to repose our trust and future in a God in whom diminishing numbers believe.

Small wonder that amidst this clash of inapt symbols most people don’t celebrate or reverence our national day. It’s day off, a one-day remission from the return to school and work.

It’s not a day off for the Governor-General and Prime Minister. They are duty-bound to try to make something nation-like out of the national day and conjure the Treaty into a symbol of the foundation of a nation.

Small wonder the Prime Minister, bedevilled by protests in the name of the Treaty, for some years has preferred to look beyond it to a broader basis for conjuring a nation — a society of two principal people who have made the history and many later arrivals adding variety.

She has not forsaken the Treaty. Her government’s record, despite the foreshore/seabed and the extirpation of race-based funding in Brash’s wake, broadly makes that point.

But the Treaty in its present tangled state cannot symbolise, still less make, a nation, for all that technically it is the country’s founding document.

For that a new idea is needed, one the great majority in its diversity can adopt as symbolising a society they feel part of and gives meaning to the national day. The good news is that we have, without really noticing it, made a start. Which is next week’s story.