Another Waitangi Day, another protest, another Pakeha sob about the politicization of our ‘national day’. Can’t we all just get along, as beer drinking, flag flying, All Blacks watching, land confiscating, treaty reneging New Zealanders, David Shearer seems to ask.
A couple of years ago I went to a talk by National MP for Tauranga, Simon Bridges. He suggested, much to the chagrin of the audience, that ‘we’re all pretty similar, underneath’. His essentialism evaporated the difference between Maori and Pakeha, male and female, rich and poor; in one linguistic act, he managed to deny classed, racialized and gendered histories of struggle, marking the individual as the constituent political unit. The open-neck shirt new Nat fumbled around while those elided by the ‘we’re all New Zealanders’ line spoke back.
Yet the homogenizing imagination stretches back much farther than Simon Bridges. What he was doing was giving voice to a kind of humanist universalism and essentialism, but more specifically, recycling, minus its leftist politics, a Pakeha monocultural myth, one founded in the interconnected and now mainstream mythologies of the labour movement and of settlement.
The literature of Landfall – I mean look at its very name! – both produced and reproduced this conceit, by first troping the land as empty and inimical, and then coupling the story of Pakeha settlement with the story of the Labour Party. Take James K. Baxter’s ‘Election 1960‘, for example, as he draws upon Aesop to tell the (hi)story of New Zealand politics:
In the polling booths
A democratic people have elected
King Log, King Stork, King Log, King Stork again.
Because I like a wide and silent pond
I voted Log. That party was defeated.
Delinquent frogs! Stork is an active King,
A bird of principle, benevolent,
And Log is Log, an old time-serving post
Hacked from a totara when the land was young.
What we find in this poem, despite Baxter’s ironizing of the political process, is a clear settlement claim. This is the land where ‘King Log’ — that is to say the Labour Party — has sprung from the earth, ‘hacked from a totara when the land was young’, an autochthonous politics yoked to histories of violence in the sapling land.
The history that Baxter is connecting to is one that prioritizes class struggle over race politics. This history, very much ascendant in post-war historiography, locates the foundation of our nation not in the Treaty of Waitangi but in the mines and on the waterfront in 1913; in the bush; or, more precisely, at 12 Fife Lane in Miramar, where, on 18 September 1937, the cabinet of the First Labour Government helped the McGregor family move into the country’s first state house.
The homogenizing imagination, which links questions of identity to essentialist histories or universalist philosophies has not disappeared. Labour’s opening election broadcast attempted to couple New Zealand nationalism with labour politics and history. Our history, all of us, is apparently the story of class struggle. In 2005, unitary nationalism was the campaign direction of Don Brash’s National Party: one law for all, and all the rest of it. Our identity, all of us, is overwhelmingly that we are New Zealanders, whatever that means.
Moving back now to what brought this article about: David Shearer’s carefully constructed appeal to a phantasm of ‘Middle New Zealand’. His politics, history and identity are founded upon the same unities as Bridges, Baxter and Brash — we’re all New Zealanders in the lucky country (nationalism), we’re not so different you-and-I (universalism), and we’re ultimately united by our ‘clean, green environment, our relaxed way of life, our innovation and our creativity’ (New Zealand exceptionalism).
But isn’t there something missing? Say, for example, Maori, who may have something to say about identity and history? Don’t we have real histories to deal with; shouldn’t we be asking why we have protests on Waitangi Day and how to resolve them?
Apparently not. Open me another beer, mate, it’s Waitangi Day.