By Peter Dunne*
The period of Matariki, the celebration of the Māori New Year, which began earlier this week, is being celebrated increasingly as an important national event.
While many other countries have their own form of New Year celebrations, Matariki is uniquely New Zealand. As such, it deserves special recognition.
We already celebrate great annual events from other cultures, such as Diwali and Chinese New Year, which is good, but now is the time to give Matariki the prominence it deserves.
Yet most of the celebrations around Matariki are locally organised. Usually local communities and councils play their part in putting together local festivities such as fireworks displays or other celebratory events. Unlike Waitangi Day, or even ANZAC Day, the two other uniquely New Zealand special days which we commemorate each year, there is no national occasion organised to celebrate Matariki.
The time has come to change that. Matariki deserves its own special day of celebration and is worthy of a public holiday in its honour. Even though there is a general wariness in New Zealand about creating more public holidays – as the debate a few years ago about ‘Mondayising’ Waitangi and ANZAC Days showed – we are still on the light side of the number of public holidays most countries celebrate. Adding another holiday to celebrate a significant national event is unlikely to bring the economy to its knees as some critics might argue.
In any case, the establishment of a national public holiday to mark Matariki need not entail the creation of an additional public holiday. It could be done by simply replacing an existing public holiday that has become obsolete. An obvious candidate in this regard is the current Queen’s Birthday holiday at the start of June.
As New Zealand culturally diversifies, the celebration of the British Monarch’s birthday, with full military honours and all the trappings besides becomes more and more incongruous. At a time when New Zealand is trying to shake off the final vestiges of its colonial past and assert its identity as a modern Pacific nation nothing can continue to appear more absurd than the annual official celebration of the birthday of a hereditary ruler on the other side of the world. Queen’s Birthday holiday is an occasion whose time has well and truly past, and it should be replaced with an event far more relevant to the lives and world views of contemporary New Zealanders.
Matariki Day would be the perfect substitute for the anachronistic Queen’s Birthday. Occurring at about the same time of year as Queen’s Birthday, Matariki would also have the practical advantage of ensuring that New Zealanders still get a public holiday during the long winter months. The Queen’s Birthday Honours List could easily become the Matariki Honours List, which would be a nice counterpoint to the New Year’s Honours List released in January. And the dwindling pageantry now associated with Queen’s Birthday could be incorporated into the wider celebrations of Matariki, if it be so wished. In short, Matariki has a far more New Zealand ring about it than Queen’s Birthday ever did.
Bicultural New Zealand has been engaged in an often too timid assertion of its national identity for some generations now. Yet while our population has become more diverse, and our absorption of aspects of other cultures more extensive, especially since the 1990s, we have been too slow to move to ensure that our national structures reflect both that emerging diversity and our own bicultural environment. Despite successive Prime Ministers piously acknowledging the inevitability that New Zealand will become a republic, none has done anything to advance that. And notwithstanding Britain’s abrupt casting aside of New Zealand when it wanted to join the European Community in the 1970s, New Zealand has rushed to be near the top of the queue in negotiating a free trade agreement with Britain now that it has decided it no longer wants to be part of Europe after all.
The time has come for this country to start matching its lofty and bold talk about our progressive and independent identity with some action that shows we take that talk seriously. Continuing the way we are, with no substantive action to follow, will, over time, led to more and more alienation and potential social division. Moving now to replace Queen’s Birthday with the far more relevant Matariki Day would be a simple, but important step forward and a signal that as a country we were genuine in our desire to establish and promote our identity and pride in all facets of what it means to be a New Zealander today.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.