Willie Jackson, Kelvin Davis and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern contributed to the convivial atmosphere at Waitangi this year when they cooked a BBQ breakfast following the Dawn Service. Image: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Stop praising Māori for ‘behaving’ at Waitangi this year

A lot has been made of a ‘less disruptive’ and ‘protest-free’ Waitangi Day this year. It’s misguided praise, writes Miriama Kamo.

I find praise of a peaceful Waitangi Day jarring. The absence of protest is not the indicator of a successful Waitangi Day. Whether protest occurs or does not occur is not the measure of anything other than the mood of the marginalised. And if it is the measure, then it is for Māori to decide whether Waitangi celebrations were ‘successful’.

Why do we praise ‘peaceful’ Waitangi Day celebrations? It suggests that agitators behaved, that they weren’t naughty, that they toed the line to allow everyone to have a ‘nice’ day. Every year, Waitangi Day is approached with trepidation – how much protest will there be, what form will it take? National leader Bill English was spooked by it, suggesting to RNZ that his decision not to attend Waitangi last year saw marae trustees organise themselves this year to see ‘dignity restored to that event’ – read, no protest. In his view, this is why the new government received a warm reception. “I am pleased it has been a positive day … and that the unnecessary controversies which have overshadowed celebrations in previous years were not present.”

It is not for Māori to behave to make anyone feel better about justified and reasonable demands for equity. The onus is not on Māori to smooth the path for others to come into their home; a home that has been, figuratively and literally, systematically dismantled and destroyed over decades. Labour too has a lot of ground to make up, so it’s good that Jacinda Ardern spoke with verve and hope for a more equitable partnership. Her warm reception reflects the historic grassroots support by many Māori for the party, the ongoing excitement around the prime minister’s leadership, but also her pregnancy. New life is sacred, protest would have felt awkward in what is still a honeymoon period for Labour. The absence of significant protest honoured that new life.

But it did not signal some supposed maturity on the part of Māori where they have seen the light, the error of their ways, or organised themselves to be better hosts to the Crown contingent. Neither did it affirm that Labour may enjoy protest-free Waitangi Days going forward. Indeed the prime minister not only acknowledged that, but appeared to encourage it when she said to RNZ, “…we should stop striving for perfection at the commemorations of our national day. If people choose to use their voice on this day that does not mean it is a failure… it just means that we’re not complacent.”

Protest is natural and vital in a healthy democracy. A good protest should be peaceable, intelligent and passionate. Aotearoa has a proud and effective history of successful protest; the hīkoi lead by Dame Whina Cooper, the Springbok Tour, Nuclear free, Foreshore and Seabed to name just a few. We may not always like protest, protestors, or what they’re fighting for – but when they do step out, we should accept that a group has been sufficiently moved to say something. We should acknowledge when that action results in meaningful change.

I’m not suggesting that there ought to have been protest yesterday, just that its absence should not be celebrated, it should simply be objectively observed. We should not aim to set a tone of peaceful Waitangi Day celebrations into the future. Our aim should be to set a system of equity whereby protest is not needed. With that in mind, Māori are the best positioned to determine whether Waitangi Day has been ‘successful’. If Waitangi Day is not a good day for protest, when is? Don’t be afraid of protest, be afraid when, in the absence of equity, there is silence.

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