Lesson from a long-dismissed day in our history

Tomorrow is Dominion Day. What’s that? The centenary of the day New Zealand was declared a dominion. Ummm.

Dominion Day is one of the dates lighted on by people hunting for a national day which doesn’t remind as much of division as of unity, as does Waitangi Day, and doesn’t commemorate military defeat, as does Anzac Day.

But Dominion Day won’t do either. Becoming a dominion was an unremarkable marker en route from colony to legally independent state. Nothing of substance changed that day in 1907, though Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward’s head, already a fair size, swelled some more.

Autonomy in domestic affairs was already established, so the new status added nothing at home. Nor abroad: foreign policy stayed in London hands. New Zealand was automatically set at war with Germany in 1914 by Britain’s declaration — though New Zealand determined as a domestic matter what it would contribute.

The 1914-18 war prompted the white dominions, New Zealand included, to demand more say in conduct of imperial military policy, then foreign policy. New Zealand had a seat at the peace conference and joined the League of Nations as a separate state, able by the late 1930s to vote at odds with British policy.

In 1945 New Zealand joined the United Nations as “New Zealand”, shorn of the prefix “Dominion of”. In 1946 the prefix disappeared from government letterhead. In 1947 Parliament formalised de facto control of foreign affairs and the constitution. When the Queen visited in 1953 a special law had to be passed to empower her to act as head of state.

So a more pertinent anniversary would be a sixtieth, on November 25, the day in 1947 when Parliament here adopted the 1931 British Statute of Westminster formalising independence or December 10, the day the British Parliament ratified this country’s power to amend its own constitution.

But “sixtieth” is not “centenary”. Tomorrow the Prime Minister will lead a day-long symposium at Parliament to mark the long-dismissed Dominion Day. It will be a timely scan of our path to statehood, then nationhood.

The dominion years are part of our heritage and Helen Clark is far keener on heritage than any predecessor. Next she is off to commemorate New Zealand soldiers’ initial victory at Passchendaele on October 4 1917, which was followed eight days later by the severest ever slaughter of New Zealand troops — a poignant ninetieth anniversary.

Part of the reason for rising recent public interest in Anzac Day is that war has been a shaper of this nation’s psyche. The high death rate in the world wars was a factor in New Zealand turning anti-nuclear and in preferring peacemaking to warfare. Now, distant from devastating death, we can look war in the eye on Anzac Day.

So April 25 2015 looks set to be a big day.

Will February 6 2040, the Treaty of Waitangi’s bicentenary, be a big day?

In 1890 the new colony self-importantly celebrated a fiftieth jubilee of its founding. The Treaty centenary in 1940 was under the cloud of war. Both were British days. Rats and insects had charge of the Treaty.

The 150th anniversary in 1990 was not so much under a cloud as in a fog.

On the Maori side there was still anger at injustice and subjection. The process for addressing breaches of the Treaty was still new and the big settlements were in the future. Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, who died this month, directed a bitter diatribe at a government earnestly trying to set out on a path to set things right.

Among non-Maori at that time there was large resistance to the new Treaty process. Let bygones be bygones, get over it, we are all New Zealanders now, was the refrain.

That was a yearning for a lost past. The 150th anniversary was not a British day. Too much had changed and was continuing to change in the position of Maori in the power structure, in society and in high culture and daily custom. The rats no longer had custody of the Treaty.

More generally, we were not just a separate state, as in 1947, but a distinct nation, with our own voice and customs — truly, not just legally, of this place.

In 2040 we will have left behind another past, that of a Treaty invested over the past 30 years with imprecations, interpretations and expectations the original text could not have intended or encompassed.

The generation commemorating that bicentenary will live in a more Pacific nation and will be learning to live in the Asian sphere. It will see the Treaty as a symbol of foundation, not a bone of contention or charter for social and political organisation. Making a future will be more pressing than fixing the past.

In that there will be echoes of Dominion Day 1907. For all the thinness of Ward’s new varnish, his colony was confident and forward-looking. The nation of 2007 could do with a dose of that.

* A readable, definitive account of the dominion period is in David McIntyre’s Dominion of New Zealand: Statesmen and Status 1907-1945, published today by the Institute of International Affairs.