Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Norman Kirk and New Zealand Day

Spare a thought this Friday for what our national day was meant to be, and compare it with what it has become. Before 1973 a small ceremony took place at Waitangi each 6 February to commemorate the signing of the Treaty. Only Northland had a holiday. Then Norman Kirk promised during the 1972 election campaign that there would be a national holiday. The New Zealand Day Act was passed the following year. When some members of the Labour caucus urged Kirk to call it Waitangi Day, the Prime Minister brushed us aside. New Zealand Day, as he insisted it be called, was to be for all New Zealanders to celebrate our different identities and the sense of nationhood that brought us together. It was owned by everyone, irrespective of race or cultural background.

As if to demonstrate the point, Kirk took a close interest in planning the splendid pageant on the lawn in front of the Treaty House on the first New Zealand Day 1974. Choreographed by Dick Johnstone, cultural groups from all our nationalities performed in front of the Queen, with Maori in pride of place, as they ought to be. It was a jolly, multicultural occasion. Most enjoyed the spectacle on TV celebrating our nation. It was composed then of Maori, British, Yugoslavs, Dutch, Indians and Pacific Islanders. Kirk reinterpreted Governor Hobson's comment that we were "one people" into a more realistic assessment of what we had become. He said we were "one nation, many people", then added that we all had equal rights. That concept is even more relevant now that a new group, the Asians, constitute 30% of our migrant intake each year.

But it was Kirk's government that inadvertently began undermining this concept just before his death. In the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1974 it redefined who was a Maori. Many people with more than 50% Pakeha blood and only a dash of Maori could designate themselves Maori. When the Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 some new Maori perceived opportunities for themselves in separateness, rather than acknowledging their multicultural Kiwi origins. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon pushed separateness a stage further. In 1976 he persuaded Parliament to rename New Zealand Day, "Waitangi Day". It was a fatal mistake. Kirk has been proved right many times since. Within a short time a day of celebration degenerated into a day of grievance. The sins of Pakeha - many of them real, others imagined - were paraded at Waitangi, while the populace at large wondered what further indignity would be visited upon the Governor-General or the Prime Minister. The pageantry of 1974 became the purgatory of the eighties and nineties. Kirk's vision, which we could all sign up to, was rudely brushed aside.

For more than twenty years the Waitangi dirge has continued. In the meantime governments have tried extremely hard to rectify Maori grievances. Several significant land and fisheries claims have been settled. Others are under negotiation. But the harder governments try, the more relentless become the demands. The Crown once embodied us all. Gradually it became the focus of attack from new Maori. In 1990 the Queen re-visited Waitangi on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty. Instead of the spirit of togetherness marking her 1974 visit, she copped a wet tee shirt in her face. TV cameras, presumably tipped off, recorded it. The same animus will no doubt be present this Friday. Meantime, the other 86% of New Zealanders long since learned to enjoy the holiday and avert their gaze from the Waitangi spectacle. Sadly, we don't have a national day any longer. With inadequate reason, a small number of radicals have managed to kill Kirk's dream in their quest for notoriety.

This tragedy will continue until some government deals courageously with the mess their forebears have allowed to develop. Most New Zealanders are getting heartily sick of 6 February being trumpeted as Continual Grievance Day. Patience has run thin with calls for special privileges, no matter whether it's the foreshore, special local voting rights, or Maori quotas for this and that. They palpably aren't assisting Maori in the statistics that count - health and education - and are encouraging a cargo cult. If this Friday is just a repeat of past years then it's time the rest of us chose another day to celebrate what makes New Zealand great. One where we can honour the things that bind us, rather than listening to a small minority intent on pulling us apart.

I have no doubt there would be considerable support for restoring Norman Kirk's vision of one country, one law, many cultures, with privileges for none. That's a New Zealand that can survive and grow.