A national day of clashing symbols

Today is a day drenched in symbols — for those who go looking for them. For most it is just Saturday. We don’t think enough of our “national” day to make it a weekday holiday.

Contrast that with our most respectful Monday-holiday commemoration of the Queen. Holiday-wise, she gets bigger billing than the nation. That is an intriguing symbol.

In fact, the Queen doesn’t turn up to our national day. She doesn’t even send her Willie. The Governor-General does turn up but these days the Governor-General is in effect the Prime Minister’s appointee, not a regal delegate.

Yet Treaty of Waitangi folklore, in the wake of the Appeal Court’s inventive lawmaking a quarter-century ago, supposes a “Crown” and supposes it a “partner” with Maori.

That is twice a fiction. In practical, day-to-day politics the “Crown” is the government, that is, John Key’s ministers, who do turn up on our national day, and their officials. And the Treaty was and is with iwi and hapu and protects iwi and hapu interests, not those of Maori in general who are citizens under article 3 like all other citizens.

Royal symbolism is nevertheless kept alive by a royalist Prime Minister who restored knighthoods and damehoods, long gone in Australia and Canada, and thought it appropriate for a royal to open the Supreme Court’s building.

That court is a symbol of independence, by virtue of having replaced the royal privy council as our highest court. Bowing to a prince to open the court’s home was a special irony, a genuflection to tradition, a petition for parental approval of this not-quite-yet-adult nation’s show of independence. Key voted against the Supreme Court.

For royalists, bypassing Charlie for Willie was inspired symbolism. Willie is the most attractive royal on offer, a lure for backsliders. Charlie is the republicans’ friend, an ageing heir whom few would write in to have as King. And as an aside, given his views on architecture, he might have had a discomforting phrase for the pohutukawa shoebox cheek-by-jowl with Lambton Quay offices and shops.

A nation that took its symbols seriously would have made the home of its highest court separate, distinct and grand, as the Australians did. We chose instead to think provincial, as we did for next year’s world rugby cup stadium in Auckland. That small-thinking, too, is part of our national symbolism. It wasn’t always.

Parking the Supreme Court on the flat by the shops also underscores the pre-eminence our constitutional practice accords the Beehive and Parliament, which look down on the court. Our small-r republican politics has from colonial times presumed a hands-on, accessible democracy not too weighed down with constitutional niceties and generally disrespectful of those who put on airs.

Simon Power was quick to assert parliamentary dominance and chastise the Chief Justice last year when she commented on penal policy. In the United States she would have slapped him back.

Treaty issues have also generally been handled with a what-works approach. Key has carried that through into his dealings with the Maori party, which declares itself the Treaty partner in Parliament.

Hence the tino rangatiratanga flag, promoted by the Maori party as the Maori flag to fly on selected official occasions. Key backs it because the Maori party backs it. He ordered it to fly on government buildings today.

But some see an unwanted symbolism in that flag, born of its protest origins. It does not unite all Maori and some won’t fly it today. Manukau City Council, which has a high Maori population to whom it pays special attention, barred it.

At least it is a home-grown flag. What are we to make of the symbolism of the official national flag which has Britain’s Union Jack in one corner and shares with Australia the Southern Cross? Air New Zealand does much better on the tails of its planes.

As with the flag, so with the name, purporting to be an offshoot of a flat country on Europe’s grey North Sea when actually we are mountains, blue seas and 600-800 years of Polynesian history.

Then there is the national anthem which enjoins us to leave it all to God — hardly the get-up-and-go image we used to promote. Singing it in te reo masks this for most because they don’t understand the words.

This muddle of symbols is with us today on our national day: still part-British-royal yet independent; a Supreme Court in Parliament’s and the cabinet’s shadow; a flag that gets mixed up with others; a name from somewhere else; and an anthem entreating God to defend us and make us great.

Plus the kiwi, a bird that does not fly and comes out only at night. Wow!

There is a chance to make a start on fixing this picture of ourselves. National and the Maori party agreed to set up a constitutional review this year.

Setting the terms of reference has been complex. Small wonder, after the rangatiratanga flag bother. The review team will have its work cut out if it is not to be as inappropriate as many of our symbols.