It’s never very far from my memory. The time, in 1988, I took a taxi to Jupiter’s Casino on the Gold Coast with a couple of army friends of mine. All I can really recall is shrinking down into the back seat between my companions, in bemused horror, as the taxi driver proceeded to tell us all about how the “Tasmanian Aborigines” were exterminated, and that, on the mainland, “they should have finished the job”.

I was 18, and working at Expo 88 in Brisbane at the time, in a year of bicentennial celebrations of the European settlement of Australia. I was doing my bit back then to contribute to Australian patriotism and, until that moment, I had never really given the other side of the story any thought.

If you are a social media type with a New Zealand Facebook account, you will likely have had a few interesting or disturbing posts on your feed in the lead-up to Australia Day last week (on 26 January, which marks the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships to Sydney Cove in 1788).

This day is intended to be celebratory, as this official blurb declares:

On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation. It’s the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.

But the social media posts I saw were less than celebratory, and largely consisted of withering criticism of Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Australians.

At times like this, New Zealand discussions about race relations between the majority populations of Australia and New Zealand and their respective indigenous communities, takes on a competitive tinge. We New Zealanders are just SO much better than Australians at “dealing with” indigenous peoples, and every year Australia Day gives us that lovely frisson that comes from revelling, for a moment, in the feeling of a job well done.

There is, after all, some evidence to suggest that our race relations are better than Australia’s. (Such a quaint term that, race relations, at a time when we rarely talk of race anymore.)

Smugness is sterile though. Each country has quite a different political, cultural and social history, not to mention a vastly different linguistic and demographic landscape. And any little sense of complacency we might have been lured into by way of Australia Day on January 26 is soon obliterated by our own tortured anxieties (for some, at least) about Waitangi Day on February 6.

Usually there is some issue or take that demands protest and attention, for which Waitangi Day becomes a kind of cultural and political lightning rod. This year it is the approaching local signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Some Māori have promised protest at Waitangi, while John Key proclaims his normal state of resolute relaxation about any such protests.

And, on cue, a few weeks out, PMPAAW kicks in. That’s Pākehā Media Personality Angst Against Waitangi.

In 2012, it was Paul Holmes who delivered up an absolute doozy, against which the Press Council later upheld complaints.

Paul spluttered:

I wouldn’t take my three great uncles who died at Gallipoli and in France — Reuben, Mathew and Leonard — to Waitangi Day and expect them to believe this was our national day. I wouldn’t take my father, veteran of El Alamein and Cassino, there. Nor would I take my Uncle Ken who died in a Wellington bomber, then try and tell him Waitangi Day was anything but filth.

No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions.

The same year Richard Long had a go. In 2014, Cameron Slater jumped on the train. And in 2011, Peter Dunne repeated calls for a New Zealand Day to replace Waitangi Day. This year, it was Mike Hosking’s turn, although on TV rather than in print. “An annual ritual of abuse, anger and ignorance,” in Mike’s view.

Well, I’m not sure which ritual he was referring to — the one at the lower marae, or that perpetrated by PMPAAW.

Snarkiness aside, I’ve never had any problems with dissent about Waitangi Day, from any quarter. These protests, complaints and flagellation are absolutely necessary. New Zealand must never succumb again to a comfortable view of itself. This uncertainty about our national identity and our connections between our communities is absolutely essential if we are to function well as a nation in the future.

The seeds of this uncertainty were sown in the years between 1835–1840 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, and only in the past 40 or so years have those seeds begun to bear fruit more obviously in the public consciousness.

But make no mistake, when it comes to Crown-Māori relations, uncertainty has been our national lifeblood.

The Treaty of Waitangi is but only one agreement between the Crown and Māori among hundreds in our legal history. These agreements included deeds of cession, confiscation agreements, and regional pre-emptive agreements. Each agreement opening up new relationships, new portals for negotiation, new sites of political uncertainty.

In fact, the single most enduring and salient feature of political constitutionalism in colonial New Zealand has been Māori insistence on treating any agreement with the Crown as never final, but, in the words of Mark Hickford, only as “punctuated moments in conversations without end”.

Time and again, year after year, decade after decade, Māori have insisted on negotiation, compromise, recognition and political space. Sometimes they have got it. Oftentimes not.

So, from the perspective of what we could call political identity formation, or constitutionalism, the Treaty of Waitangi generates a kind of positive uncertainty. We don’t actually know what the future will bring in the relationship between Māori, the Crown, and the peoples of New Zealand. We can’t take solace in presuming that what has been, always will be. There are new settlements, new agreements, new cultural landscapes and new relationships forming and dissolving every year. None of this is comfortable.

I like comfort and moderation. So I have some sympathy with the call for the simplicity of a New Zealand Day, such as that uttered many times by the MP Peter Dunne:

We have so many wonderful things about this country that we should be celebrating; we have achieved great things as a nation and continue to do so. We need to be proud of all of that and celebrate what it is to be a Kiwi.

Waitangi Day is not doing that and has not for a long time.

He says Waitangi Day rarely leaves Kiwis feeling more “united, positive or upbeat”, and non-Māori avoid the day.

He and those like him seem to wish for a simpler, more certain idea of what being a New Zealander is — something more like an Australia Day celebration (without the messy complications of stolen generations and drunk NRL players).

I think we can celebrate and be pissed off at each other. Why should these things be mutually exclusive?

They can’t be for me. My Pākehā and Māori ancestors collectively got me to where I am as an urban-born Māori who has had to learn what being Māori even means.

So, arguably, Waitangi Day has a far different function than a mere “National Day”. It’s a reminder of uncertainty, and to be frank, a safety valve too.

As Tim Watkin observed in 2012: “I want to hear the anger, not least because silence leads to disenfranchisement and ultimately to violence. It’s when the shouting stops that the bomb-making begins, so let’s celebrate that our national day encourages citizens to speak their truths rather than kill for them.”

So wherever I go and whatever I do this Waitangi Day (more likely to be resting than protesting), I will at some point take a moment to be grateful for our national uncertainty. The alternative is more frightening.


© E-Tangata, 2016

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.