There's an empty spot above The Speaker's chair that would be the perfect place for a New Zealand Wars memorial, writes Gareth Hughes. Image: Office of the Clerk

Parliament can’t keep ignoring the New Zealand Wars

As the second annual commemoration of the New Zealand Wars approaches, Green MP Gareth Hughes lays down a wero for his fellow MPs.

On the walls of Parliament’s debating chamber hang 33 memorial plaques and wreaths commemorating battles where New Zealanders fought, from South Africa to Afghanistan. One is missing.

There’s a wreath to the battle of Passchendaele, where on our country’s ‘darkest day’ 846 Kiwis died hurling themselves against the barbed wire and machine guns of the Ypres trenches. There are plaques to Vietnam, where 37 Kiwis died fighting in the jungles and rice paddies of this unpopular war, and there’s our latest war, Afghanistan, where 15 Kiwis have fallen. These memorials adorn our national house because it’s important to remember the sacrifice of New Zealanders but currently Parliament ignores our most foundational conflict. France, Belgium, Egypt, Italy, Malaya and Vietnam are all displayed prominently on the walls but not our own New Zealand Wars.

From the first Anzac Day, ‘never forgetting’ our dead has become one of our most sacred national catch cries. Battles and wars are at the heart of our country’s identity and national myth. Our Parliamentary building was officially opened only a month before the end of the First World War, where the loss of more than 18,000 New Zealanders was still raw. Parliament was formally dedicated as a memorial to the war and carved wreaths were installed on the walls and stained glass windows of the debating chamber. In 1961, wooden memorial plaques were installed on its walls commemorating the South African ‘Boer’ War and battles from the Second World War. The memorials were added to in the 1990s to acknowledge the wars in Malaya and Vietnam, and again in 2013 with plaques commemorating New Zealand’s peacekeepers and the war in Afghanistan. It’s important to remember the blood and sacrifice of Kiwis who have died overseas but why has Parliament never installed a memorial to those who died in the New Zealand Wars?

The glaring omission of a plaque commemorating our own wars reflects our New Zealand Wars historical amnesia. For more than a century it’s been brushed under the carpet and the story of nationhood was outsourced to the battlefield of Gallipoli. The myth of modern New Zealand nationhood may have been created in the First World War, but the reality of our nationhood was born on the battlefields of Ōrākau, Ruapekapeka and Pukehinahina/Gate Pā.

The New Zealand Wars, also known as the Land Wars and Māori Wars, saw important and bloody battles fought in Northland, Wellington, Whanganui, Waikato, Taranaki, Taupō, Hawke’s Bay, Bay of Plenty, East Coast and Te Urewera. Across the violent decades of the 19th century, around 3000 lives were lost, both Māori and Pākehā. As a direct result of the wars 3.2 million acres of Māori land was confiscated and afterwards, many millions more were lost through the Native Land Court. Modern New Zealand wouldn’t be what it is today without that formative, painful conflict.

For too long as a country we’ve both consciously and unconsciously ignored the thousands who died in our own wars to avoid discussing the reasons for those wars – land and sovereignty. There’s an apt Māori proverb ‘Ka mua, ka muri’ or ‘looking back in order to move forward,’ that describes how we benefit from acknowledging our past. Like a family secret it’s been kept under wraps and hardly discussed, but thanks to the work of Māori, students and academics it’s no longer our forgotten war.

Rā Maumahara, the journey to a national commemoration, has gathered pace. In the last ten years, we’ve seen a national day created, a national debate started about including the New Zealand Wars in the education curriculum, and Minister of Māori Development Nanaia Mahuta recently announced a $4 million commemoration fund. The movement for remembrance is helping build a broader historical understanding of where our country has come from. As other nations have also found, reconciliation starts with acknowledging conflict and suffering. We are a wiser nation for remembering our past and a richer nation for treasuring our history.

Parliament – our ‘house of the people’ – is the right place to include a commemoration of the New Zealand Wars, especially considering Parliament’s role in facilitating the invasions and confiscations. Right above the Speaker’s chair, right in the middle of the chamber is a blank space, perfect for a New Zealand Wars plaque. It’s almost crying out for it, as if fate fortuitously has left it bare, or a canny architect had kept it clean waiting for the moment the nation matured and acknowledged its history.

I’ve written to The Speaker asking that a New Zealand Wars commemoration be considered to sit alongside the other wars on the walls of Parliament to remember those who fell, both Māori and Pākehā. In itself, it’s only a symbolic gesture. But to not do so perpetuates our historical ignorance. This year on October 28, on our second annual commemoration of the New Zealand Wars, we have the chance to unveil a new plaque representing and remembering our past.

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