Saturday, February 9, 2013

Our national day and the common good?

Waitangi Day has come and gone without dire confrontations or great incident, apart from the sad comedy of Titewhai Harawira and the apparent inability of Maori leaders to stand up to her bullying.  That of course was a sideshow. On the upper marae, the dignity, the sense of history and of a spiritual presence came through loud and clear.  That says a great deal about why we need Waitangi Day and how important it is that we honour it.

I have however been fascinated by some of the debate over the day itself.  I never thought I would find myself in agreement with John Key but I applaud his support for the day and his realism about the grievances it inevitably attracts - and that we celebrate the day despite these difficulties.  It seems to me that our coping with the tensions of difference is one of the costs of nation-building.  I was intrigued by David Shearer's attempt to inject some joy and celebration into the day by suggesting that honours be announced at this time - but Mr Key's response that this might demean the honours with further contention on the marae was probably (that word again!) 'realistic'.  I also noted Pita Sharples' counter (to the PM's warning about the negative consequences of protest) that no one should be stopped from protesting and being able to voice grievances.  He is, of course, quite right.  You don't create a nation by requiring a culture of silence or acquiescence.  It is also undeniable that Maori protest has advanced Maori interests and - in the sense that this has helped to improve their education, housing, culture, welfare, and employment opportunities - these gains have tended to spill over into the common good.

Nevertheless there is a tendency for Waitangi Day to focus upon specifically sectional interests and not invariably serve the common good.  This need not be a problem in itself, but it does become problematic when we treat the day as our national day.  A national day must be able to speak for all our peoples and not just the two Treaty partners; it should be a day when we can focus on the needs of the nation at large; reflect on what it means to be 'New Zealanders' holding a common identity, and where we are heading as a society.  At this stage in our history I rather think that we need a separate national day in addition to Waitangi Day.  It seems to me that we need a far wider space for debate about our society than Waitangi Day seems to allow.  For instance, on a national day I would expect a 'state of the nation' reflection from all our political leaders - and that would just be a starting point.

Such an idea will undoubtedly  incur the wrath of ideologues of various interests and  (probably) of the commercial sector that will see only the added costs with another national holiday.  Too bad, it's worth doing anyway!
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