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Waitangi Day Commemoration

Issue date: 
Thursday, 6 February 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Kei te mana whenua; e rangi Prince Michael; Kei te Pirimia; kei nga mangai o nga whenua o te ao; kei te motu whanui e pae nei; tena koutou katoa. I have extended greetings to the Maori people of this place; to His Royal Highness Prince Michael; to the Prime Minister; to the members of the Diplomatic Corps; to all who are assembled here.

Our gathering this afternoon is one of at least twenty eight commemorations around the country, of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi on 6 February 1840. One has been held at Waitangi itself, on land bought in 1932 by my predecessor, Lord Bledisloe, and given by him in trust for the nation. He did that so the people of New Zealand, Aotearoa, could mark for ever the signing of what is properly to be regarded as our founding document.

Waitangi, which belongs to the people of New Zealand, is the traditional and proper place for celebrating that event, and it is my earnest hope that it will not be long before we all return there.

Following long tradition, another commemoration has been at Okains Bay on Banks Peninsula.

A third has been at the Onuku Marae at Akaroa, for the Ngai Tahu people of the South Island have always honoured the Treaty in turn at each of the three places where their chiefs subscribed to it. This ceremony here at Government House is thus remote from the historical settings, but nonetheless gives us who are here, opportunity to reflect on the commitments that were entered into all those years ago.

One hundred and fifty seven years is a very short time in the sweep of human history, yet it measures the span of the life of this nation; not the life of its peoples, of course, for the life of a people, of our peoples, goes back across the whole panorama of the human race, until it is lost in the mists, the legends, the mysteries of the past. We are all products of that past; all inheritors of legends and mysteries; all the heirs of history. It is a history in which there have always been great movements of peoples; and it is as a part of these, that we New Zealanders have been brought to these shores, destined to live here together, challenged to live in harmony with each other and with the natural world about us.

Perhaps it was a realisation such as this that led those men and women at Waitangi and elsewhere around New Zealand to put their signatures to the Treaty documents. That of course is speculation. There have been many assumptions as to what may have been in the minds of the signatories, just as there is no single understanding of the meaning of the words to which they gave their assent. I must say that I wonder at the value of continually mulling over the alternatives. For the reality is that the Treaty was signed, by Maori and by the Crown, in good faith and in good hope. It was a document of great significance at the time it was signed, and in the context of that time. It remains of great significance today, and what really matters is an appreciation of its significance in the context of today. Its significance, I suggest - and this is putting it very simply - is in that challenge I have mentioned; that we who are here together in this land should live in harmony with each other.

Although I have put it simply, it is no simple thing that is demanded of us. In the first place, many of us have yet to understand the dynamic significance of the Treaty. There are still those who see it as an ancient paper of no current relevance. But as with marriage vows, for instance, the exchange of promises at the formalisation of a relationship is not the fulfilment, but only the beginning, of an ever-growing commitment, the one to the other.

For a long time the general view among pakeha was the legalistic one expressed by Chief Justice Prendergast in 1877, that the Treaty was a legal nullity. But a hundred and ten years later, the Court of Appeal was able to say that it signifies a partnership between races, requiring each partner to act with the utmost good faith towards the other, and with the recognition that it must be capable of adaptation to new and changing circumstances as they arise.

The second thing demanded of us is that we learn our history. As we do, we find that on any interpretation of the Treaty, it was not honoured on the Pakeha side. Many wrongs were done, particularly in the taking of land and the suppression of culture; and they had great social and economic consequences, that continue even down to the present day. But history also teaches perspective. People are to be judged by the standards and perceptions of their times. And our colonial past was by no means a one-sided transaction.

Of course there are those who say that the wrongs of the past belong in the past, and are of no concern to the present. There could be validity in that, were it not for the continuing consequences of the past : simply that Maori comprise a substantially disproportionate number of our underprivileged. No, justice - not guilt, but justice - goodwill and harmony, demand that genuine wrongs be honourably and sensibly redressed. Of course much progress has been made, although we still have a considerable distance to go.

The third thing demanded of us is that we understand and respect each other; our cultures, our values, our ways of thinking and doing. Early this century, Maori culture was almost extinguished. Some of the great Maori leaders of the time concluded that the only way the race could survive was to assimilate. That would have been a tragedy, and fortunately it has not happened. Instead there has been a heartening resurgence of Maori language and culture. But they are still very much a mystery, if not an irrelevance, to many non-Maori. As a result, many Maori see themselves as a minority, alien in their own land; their language unknown, their culture devalued. True equality can come only when our respective cultural values co-exist, on equal terms, as acceptable New Zealand options. This does not call for any denigration whatever of the European or other cultures from which many of us spring. It is surely one of the glories of life in this land, that we all inherit and can rejoice in cultures other than our own: in both Handel and haka.

Waitangi Day commemorates the founding of a nation of two peoples. We have been joined by a number of others bringing their own distinctive contributions to our national life. This day challenges us to understand, to respect and to esteem each other; to eliminate those things which divide us; to commit ourselves to working and living together in harmony, appreciating and drawing on the cultural riches we have to offer to each other.

Na te Tiriti tatou i karanga ki konei; waiho ano ma te Tiriti hei paihere. The Treaty has brought us together. May the Treaty bind us together.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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