Waitangi Day about us all

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed 179 years ago today. The intervening years could be seen as a litany of failures or a celebration of unity, depending on who is looking.

Most New Zealanders would probably say the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

For much of the past few decades, Waitangi Day has served as a pulpit from which differences have been shouted. This has been healthy, necessary and, at times, effective. But there is a feeling times are changing.

The Treaty was a rushed document, written without any expert legal advice and signed under the threat of settler-lawlessness, French colonisation, rapid alienation of Maori land and the knowledge, as far as many Maori were concerned, the world had already irrevocably changed with the arrival of Europeans.

Before the Treaty, there was little Maori could do to defend themselves from new arrivals. The British were seen as the best available partnership for Maori iwi in a land in a state of transformation.

The Treaty's hurried gestation perhaps makes the contention, confusion, debate and disagreement it has caused a little more understandable. It was a difficult document which meant different things to different people.

Within a few years, the Treaty had played a role in the beginning of the New Zealand Wars as those differences in interpretations - and at times a complete disregard for the Treaty, for Maori and for basic decency - caused conflicts and confiscations which New Zealand is still trying to unwind today.

That the British, local leaders and European settlers often treated Maori poorly is not up for debate. That those terrible decisions need rectification is also, as far as the vast majority of New Zealanders are concerned, not up for debate.

There are still countless examples of the New Zealand system proving a barrier to Maori success. The society this country has created does not work for everyone, nor is everyone on a level footing to obtain the riches on offer.

But none of these factors means we should only focus on division. The Treaty was not about division. New Zealand society is generally not one of division. The driving force behind New Zealand's unique maturation into a formidable nation is its striving for unity among its people and, further abroad, among the rest of the world.

While horrible decisions have been made in the past and some objectionable opinions still exist in the minds, on the lips and at the fingertips of some New Zealanders, Waitangi Day should not be about the worst of us.

It instead should be about the best of us, about celebrating our unique nationhood. We can and should celebrate the Maori language - once at serious threat of extinction but now a worthy part of our society. We should celebrate Maori education, health and social services for the unique and effective role they play in New Zealand.

We should celebrate Maori business, cultural and sporting successes, and the shifting role of Maori culture as a reverently respected bedrock of our national identity. Maori success is New Zealand success, after all.

We can celebrate Waitangi Day in whatever way we each choose. But perhaps the most effective and lasting way each of us can celebrate is to see ourselves as one people, as simply ''us'', without a ''them''.

Not to forget the grievances which are real and continue to affect people. Not to expect any of us to forget our differing heritages, or to resist celebrating those heritages. Not to assume the wrongs of the past should be forgotten. Not to resent those who are dealt a more difficult hand in our society.

But all those things can be true, can be understood and openly acknowledged while concurrently acknowledging we are New Zealanders, all of us. And this great nation would not exist the way it does without the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 179 years ago.

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