February 6 or April 25?

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Anzac Day service Mangonui Northland 2014

Which day would you rather see as Aotearoa/New Zealand’s national day? Last week I enjoyed a stimulating few hours at a conference on ‘The Imagined community of New Zealand’ presented by the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington.  One of the contributions that stirred my passion was a well-argued paper by Brigitte Bonisch-Brednich, Vic’s Professor of Anthropology.

Her argument ran something like this: Ever since Helen Clark was embarrassed at a Waitangi Day event in 1998 when her right to speak was challenged, successive governments have attempted to down-play the significance of Waitangi Day as New Zealand’s national day.  Instead they have played up Anzac Day increasingly interpreting it as New Zealand ‘real’ national day.  This tendency has been greatly strengthened by the  anniversary of the First World War.  Anzac Day, Professor Bonisch-Brednich argued, presents New Zealand identity in terms of militaristic traditions and elevates an image of the archetypal Kiwi hero as a male Pākehā  warrior.  By contrast Waitangi Day is uncomfortable for white New Zealanders and reflects a disturbing identity of a bicultural nation.

There are two issues here – Is Waitangi Day becoming marginalised and Anzac Day becoming elevated? And which is the most appropriate national day?

It is certainly true that public attendances at Anzac Day ceremonies have increased remarkably since the 1980s, and so too has the level of television coverage. But there is no clear statistical evidence that Anzac Day crowds are in fact larger than the many thousands of people who have gone to organised community activities on Waitangi Day. As Professor Bonisch-Brednich pointed out, Anzac Day has the advantage of a clearly-defined ritual which attracts interest and press coverage while Waitangi Day events are more varied and less theatrical. The television coverage ironically has been led by Māori Television which would hardly be keen to down-play the meaning of Waitangi Day.  Nor is it at all clear that the people going to Anzac Day are doing so because they wish to revel in a ritual of conservative Pākehā military heroism.

As for government funding, there has certainly been abundant resources for WW100; but apart from the salaries of professional soldiers there is no direct government funding of Anzac Day events. By contrast this year the Government funded some 60 local organisations with Waitangi Day grantstotalling almost $300,000.

So which day should the citizens of this country recognise as their national day?  There is no question that historically 6 February is an appropriate day.  However Māori interpreted the event the act of signing, whether as a recognition of sovereigntry or not, te tiriti did signal an acceptance by an important group of chiefs that Europeans were future partners in this land; and Europeans were able to begin the process of establishing a government because they believed the treaty gave them authority to do so. The treaty recognised the right for people from other countries of origin to settle in this country.  So Waitangi Day is an opportunity to recognise the bicultural partnership and the multi-cultural society which is central to 21st century New Zealand.

But this does not mean we should down-play Anzac Day as an important ritual of remembrance central to our national identity.  It is certainly true that at times the speeches at Anzac Day services have emphasised militaristic traditions.  But that is far from the essence of Anzac Day ritual.  Anzac Day was modelled on the burial service on the Western Front. The laying of wreaths, the playing of the Last Post, the gathering around the war memorial with its list of dead – they all focus the mind on the costs of war and the terrible price that New Zealanders paid for gong to war.  Here there is a real contrast with Anzac Day in Australia where the essence of the ritual is not the laying of wreaths but the parade of the veterans who are applauded as they march through the streets. That is certainly the ritual of a militaristic nationalism.  But Anzac Day here does not need at all to express such attitudes.  Rather it more comfortably expresses a powerful anti-war message; and it is not at all clear that the thousands now attending Anzac Day services are doing so to praise military traditions, or rather to remember those who lost their lives.

Arguably New Zealand’s commitment to an anti-nuclear position in the world is, for 21st century New Zealanders, as important as Gallipoli.  To my mind there is no reason why we should not see Anzac Day as consistent with that position.  To repress Anzac Day would be to hide the impact of war on this country, much as we have for so long repressed the memories and costs of the New Zealand Wars.  The only way we can avoid the mistakes of the past is to remember them and commit ourselves to avoiding the Passchendaeles of the future.  Waitangi Day and Anzac Day both have their place at the centre of Aotearoa/New Zealand identity.

Wreaths at Mongonui Anzac Day service 2014

Wreaths at Mongonui Anzac Day service 2014

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