Hard News by Russell Brown

512

A Full Sense of Nationhood

"You just missed a great New Zealand cultural moment," advised the MP for Wellington Central, and I expect he was right. A minute or two less sitting in the shade chatting to friends and I'd have caught the Prime Minister gamely dancing with a couple of drag queens.

There was quite a lot of sitting in the shade at yesterday's Big Gay Out in Coyle Park-- it was hot in the sun -- and it was a lovely, relaxed event.

It's that sort of summer in The Chev. Last weekend, Katchafire played in Coyle Park and you could barely get near the place. On Waitangi Day, the warm sun, a late-afternoon tide and a locally organised regatta drew perhaps a couple of thousand people to our golden, re-sanded beach.

It looked like Auckland. Little P-class yachts with colourful sails bobbed around off the shoreline, a big extended family of Indian New Zealanders had set up a picnic, and the whole metropolitan rainbow, brown and white, the buff and the bulbous, stretched out or splashed in the water.

It worked a lot better for me than the week's official Waitangi Day festivities, and I spent the rest of the weekend pondering that. I feel increasingly disconnected from Official Waitangi. Perhaps I'm being uncharitable, but Thursday's disgraceful assault on John Key said to me that even if Ngapuhi has its ceremony sorted out at an official level, its politics are still a mess.

It's not that it is political -- of course it is -- but that the politics seem so small. I suspect the oafs who assaulted Key didn't have the nation on their minds, and that Titewhai Harawira had the balance sheet of her personal mana uppermost as she barked orders at a shaken Key ("Stand still John -- no, no, stand still ... ") in the seconds after the attack. I've ceased to find her role as the matriarch interesting or relevant to me.

And then in Saturday's paper I found myself being browbeaten by John Roughan in a column in which he tried to lash Waitangi Day to a theory about Helen Clark, who "could not find it in herself to rise above small indignities."

Roughan cites as an example of Clark's "deficiency" of spirit her response to the idea that Roger Douglas be nominated in his newspaper's promotional campaign to name the "Greatest Living New Zealander".

When the idea was put to Clark she said she would offer it "the charity of my silence". What exactly what she supposed to say? Ironically, the idea of Douglas being so anointed came from Don Brash, in the same breath as he vilified Clark. In comparison to Brash's outburst about her, Clark's response seems particularly dignified. Ditto with respect to Harawira's extraordinary claim last week that Clark was just "pretending" her tears in the infamous confrontation in 1998.

And for that matter it's odd to see Roughan complain about "meanness of spirit" in the same column in which he implies that Clark only won his paper's poll because her obsessive party faithful conspired in a write-in campaign.

But who's obsessed, really? Roughan wrote essentially the same column a year ago: then, as now, he decried Clark's lack of "spiritual awareness," and lamented her inability to "offer a prayer" when she did attend the dawn service, as Jenny Shipley had in 1998 (before, it should be noted, flying back to Wellington where the official ceremony took place) and John Key did this year. It would been better, he seems to imply, if she'd just been able to fake it.

I have no wish to get between Roughan and his personal experience of the day, but I have not attended the invitational dawn service. I don't expect, or particularly like, my political leaders to turn on the prayer (especially when some of them have been happy in the past to decry powhiri and karakia in search of political advantage).

And I can't share his urge to mythologise such recent history either. Waitangi in the 1990s wasn't "a spiritual event" so much as it was racked by iwi politics and the government's arrogant attempt to arbitrarily cap Treaty claims.

Further, I don't see Clark's attempt to widen the focus of Waitangi Day, to pay heed to the rest of the nation's celebrations (and spend her first Waitangi Day as Prime Minister in the company of Ngai Tahu, for example), as evidence of a critical personality flaw.

There is actually a continuity here. It was a Labour government that anointed February 6 as "a national day of thanksgiving in commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi" in 1957, and the Kirk government that made it a national holiday-- in the first instance, as New Zealand Day. NZHistory.net.nz notes Matiu Rata's view on what was happening:

The day, he said, was to be neither "a symbolic nor religious occasion" but a day for each New Zealander to enjoy as they saw fit, and the forerunner of an effort to achieve a "full sense of nationhood".

It was in that context that the famous picture of Kirk, hand-in-hand with a young Maori boy at Waitangi, was taken.

It was Robert Muldoon who changed the holiday's name back, and who drew the day's emphasis back to Waitangi itself, but that was largely a political move too: he wanted to be seen to be doing something while avoiding establishing the tribunal summoned in Labour's Treaty of Waitangi Act. The Labour governments of the 80s tempered the official celebrations up north (we didn't even have an official celebration in 1988) even as they set history in motion by giving the Waitangi Tribunal powers to investigate and adjudicate historic claims.

Now, it suits both partners in the historic coalition between National and the Maori Party, to be back at the Treaty grounds with their most senior leaders. John Key's assailants seemed determined to mess up that particular message opportunity.

Clark certainly had her faults as Prime Minister, and hubris may have been among them, but she wasn't obliged to be insulted, and the idea of giving the day greater national purchase deserves better than to be dismissed as some failure of nerve. I treasure the role of the Treaty in this country, and I know the celebration at the place of its signing will always be special -- but the regatta around the corner gave me more joy than what happened at Te Tii. And I'm a lot more comfortable with John Key being tickled up by drag queens than mugged by a couple of fools working out some grudge.

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And now, a little announcement ...

The Great Blend is back -- thanks to Orcon

Public Address's Great Blend live events are back for 2009 -- and, baby, we're good!

The first Orcon Great Blend takes place at the Pioneer Women's Hall, High Street, Central Auckland, 6.30pm, Saturday February 21. The theme is:

At the Media Frontier

And here's what's there:

• An onstage interview by Russell Brown with author, futurist and Wired magazine writer Bruce Sterling and his wife, the Serbian feminist, film-maker and publisher Jasmina Tesanovic, who wrote the first internet war diary: Diary of a Political Idiot. Brought to you in association with Webstock.

• A presentation by Andrew Dubber, Arts and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Transfer Fellow in Online Music and Radio Innovation at the University of Birmingham, UK, and one of Britain's leading commentators on the future of the music industry.

• Music from DJ-producer Simon Flower.

• Some exclusive video we can't tell you about yet.

In keeping with Great Blend tradition, entry will be free, the drinks will be cheap, the coffee will be good and the conversations will sparkle.

The Orcon Great Blend is also sponsored by Freeview, the Quadrant Hotel and Eden Coffee.

We'll open the online RSVPs for the event tomorrow.

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And finally …

Last week's Media7, looking at the media and Fiji and the stoush over Section 92A of the Copyright Act, is available on TVNZ ondemand. For overseas viewers -- sorry, but there are technical problems still with the YouTube version, but I think the podcast will work for you. There's also a Media7 blog with useful links.

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