February 2, 2016

Can the Treaty stretch to reach other cultures?

Colin James’s Otago Daily Times column for 2 February 2016

Some think Anzac Day is our real national day, marking, they say, our coming of age in World War I.

That war did make white New Zealanders aware Mother-Britain could get things wrong (Gallipoli and much else) and feel a bit different from home-grown Poms.

But true independence came 70 years later when the post-1945 generation displayed an unselfconscious New Zealandness in art, craft, writing, dance and music and daily life and invented a globally-unique biculturalism.

Anzac Day’s commemoration of defeat does not capture that national affirmation.

Last year some pushed for a day of commemoration of our 1860s civil war — empire against iwi — which flattened the Treaty of Waitangi’s article 2 bicultural idea.

John Key, who once said we didn’t have a civil war, ruled out a new public holiday but did say that in theory one could be transferred.

A candidate: Queen’s Birthday.

No go for super-royalist Key, who thinks medieval-hangover knights and dames are of the essence of this fragment of long-dead empire.

Dames and sirs are visual and audible symbols. Many hanker for one. Key hears hankerers. He disinterred that symbol.

But, ironically, he wants to inter another symbol, the Queen’s Union Jack, by changing the flag. He set up a rushed, flawed process which crowd-picked a fern, a logo you might expect on a plane or delivery van.

And that fern was sketched by an expatriate who so values this country that he has spent the past seven years in Melbourne.

So much for indigenous — home-grown — national expression: a ubiquitous fern, not a distinct native.

It’s a bit slick. But symbols can be slick. Substance cannot be slick.

That is demonstrated in the meandering debate over swapping a borrowed monarch for a home-grown head of state, to grow us from a practical republic into a constitutional one.

Right now, even a minimalist republic by way of a plebiscite to select the Governor-General is a step too far for most.

And not just here. Australia’s republican Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week ducked when all but one of his state and territory chiefs said they wanted an Australian head of state.

The modern Waitangi Day does mark substantial change: the progressive incorporation of the Treaty’s bicultural idea into the exercise of power and day-to-day custom and identity.

So commemorating the civil war that trampled the Treaty’s bicultural idea could no more be a national day than Anzac Day can.

In some places in the outside world that bicultural idea attracts attention. For example, Australian Marcus Woolombi Waters wrote last year of an impromptu New Zealand school haka involving whites, Pasifika, Indians and Chinese (and his son) alongside Maori.

He added: “In Aotearoa, presenters, no matter what colour, continually introduce and close shows in the Maori language.” And, he said, “with language comes history and place”.

Waters was arguing, in effect, that the bicultural frame was big enough to encompass the whole nation.

It has stretched to reach out to other Polynesians, once despised by Maori — Cook Islanders were “coconuts” — as we have transited from a far-south bit of empire to a distinct nation-in-the-making that is now of the Pacific, not just in it.

But, as the proportion of people of Asian and other ethnicities grows, will that frame stretch enough to encompass them? Or it will be exclusionary?

As Mai Chen has argued, Auckland is increasingly ethnically diverse — she says “superdiverse”. Much of the rest of the country is not but that will change over time if current trends continue.

Part of the political instability in the United States and Europe is that nations with monocultural value-systems found in their midst growing numbers of migrants of other cultures, initially from their former empires but increasingly seeking economic advancement or displaced by war or other severe hardship.

Accommodating that diversity has become fraught. Inward migration is one of the drivers of populist and secessionist movements ranging from the far right to the far left.

Is it different for us?

We have incorporated our tiny Polynesian ex-empire into the bicultural frame. But can that frame accommodate cultures other migrants bring with them any more than American and European monocultures can?

The great majority of those migrants want to fit in. But many of their descendants will want and need — just as many home-grown ex-British New Zealanders want and need — connection to their heritage.

That will enrich us — connect us into China and India and many other cultures and their economies. But it will also challenge us.

Is the Treaty up to that challenge? Article 3 insists, on a modern reading, on full citizenship for all.

Reading the Treaty that way, and not just as an empire-iwi deal, the day commemorating the Treaty is our national day.

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