By Sandy Myhre
On the 6th February each year, New Zealand celebrates its National Day. While events are held throughout the country, the primary focus is at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands.
It was here in 1840 that a treaty was signed between Maori and the Crown, the only time in Victorian British expansionist history that such a treaty was made with indigenous peoples. There were reverberations concerning the precepts of that treaty at the time that still echo today and is why Waitangi has traditionally been the site of protest.
Some protests have been aggressive, some more pacifist. Some so-called protests have, in fact, been marches (hikoi) promoting a worthy cause. One Waitangi Day brought a Prime Minister (Helen Clark) to tears, frustrated at not being allowed to speak. Others (John Key and Bill English) refused to attend for the same reason.
It was clear several weeks prior that Waitangi 2018 would be a different from previous years and there were several explanations.
Few Prime Ministers have spent five days in the Far North but that wasn’t the only unprecedented move this year. The newly-elected Labour Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern, was the first pregnant Prime Minister in the world to visit Waitangi. She was the first PM to visit in three years and the first allowed to speak from the porch of the meeting house, Te Whare Runanga.
She was also the first to ask Crown ministers and other VIPs to cook a breakfast barbeque for the public post-official ceremonies rather than have them cloistered in a prosaic conference room at the nearby Copthorne Hotel.
Around 400 were at the bbq. Maori wardens organised the queues which included Russell resident and former PM, Dame Jenny Shipley. Where else in the world would a former patrician head of government line up with the plebeian masses? It possibly demonstrates a quintessentially Kiwi aspect of our cultural nature and of our National Day.
Exceptional, too, was the decision to move the official welcome of political leaders from Te Tii Marae to the upper Treaty Grounds. There were murmurings of discontent from down the road but no overt protest.
The only demonstration, if it can be called that, came from a gathering of around 20 Maori, there to highlight their views on sovereignty. In the words of one tribal leader (kaumatua) resplendent in his feathered cloak (kākahu) it was a “perfectly peaceful protest”. So much so it was barely audible.
There was no hikoi this year, no march of the malcontents, no theatrical banner or flag-waving. It was as if Tinkerbell had sprinkled her fairy dust over decision-makers and infused them with the tinsel of common sense.
In the absence of the more dramatic moments of Waitangi Days past, it left some media scrambling for ‘news’. Or it may have shown national media, who tend to concentrate on the minority histrionic events, that most of the proceedings on Waitangi Day occur without the fuss on which they usually hang their reporting hats.
Visitors (both Kiwi and international) invariably question why only the Royal New Zealand Navy is present and correct at Waitangi. It’s historical.
A charter given to the RNZN in 1990 cemented a relationship between the Navy and Tai Tokerau which pre-dated nationhood. The charter conferred on the Navy the….”right and privilege, without further permission being obtained, of marching at all times with drams beating, bands playing, colours, flying, bayonets fixed and swords drawn through the land of the Tai Tokerau, especially the Treat Grounds…” That’s what they do on the 6th February and why other branches of the military are only there by special dispensation.
It was no different this year and yet so many other aspects were. At the remains of the day, the experiences of four women attending Waitangi aptly attest to the ambiance of 2018. After all, it began with our woman Prime Minister.
Resting under the shade of a tree were two of those women. One was a Maori from the Waikato (Tainui) and visiting Waitangi for the first time. The other was from the Ngāpuhi tribe (iwi) from the Hokiānga. A third woman joined them to escape the heat. She was Pākeha (English and Irish heritage). They talked, they laughed, and shook hands as they departed.
Up the hill where the food stalls were sited, a local vicar lined up for coffee. She got chatting to a Maori woman from Rotorua, back home to visit an Aunty from Te Haumi. She spontaneously shouted the vicar the coffee.
Waitangi Day it was in February, but in 2018, not quite like other Waitangi Days past.