Matariki Day - 'It's a totally different mindset now'

By Kelvin McDonald

It has been ten years since the last significant effort was made to establish a public holiday to mark Matariki.  Now a fresh attempt to create a groundswell of support for the idea is gaining momentum through a new online petition.

The twist is that last time it was the Māori Party who led the call and this time around it is being promoted by NZ Republic, a group that wants to replace the monarchy with a homegrown head of state.

Why make Matariki a public holiday?

The appeal for NZ Republic is that Matariki is a celebration that's indigenous to Aotearoa (and the Pacific) and one which could potentially replace the Queen's Birthday as both occur around the same time of year.  However, the group says its petition on the parliamentary website is focusing on the indigenous appeal of the celebration for the time being.

"Matariki recognises our indigenous origins, as well as bringing together all peoples of New Zealand at events from public fireworks, festivals, kapa haka competitions and many others," says NZ Republic chair Lewis Holden.

"It’s clear that it’s become a lot more prominent in our lives, especially over the last few years with more and more public events.  I think now is the time for us to have a think about making Matariki a public holiday.”

The Mana Moana artwork that was part of Wellington's Matariki celebrations.  Source/File.

Background

In July 2009, the Māori Party's Rahui Katene introduced the Te Rā o Matariki Bill to parliament in an effort to establish a public holiday in recognition of the Māori New Year.

"Matariki is a festival in which we can truly commemorate the indigenous origins of Aotearoa, by giving respect to the unique customs and culture of tangata whenua," said Katene at the time.

The bill failed to gain the necessary support in parliament (voted down 63-59) but the Māori Party did make another attempt to move the initiative forward three years later following discussions with National, who had originally opposed the bill.  Ultimately, neither effort bore fruit.

NZ Republic's Lewis Holden. Photo/Supplied.

A decade later - 'A totally different mindset'

Holden says Matariki is much more widely embraced today than it was a decade ago, so much so that it's now possible to "draw a logical line" between the popularity of the celebration and "people going, 'yeah, I think we should have a public holiday'.” 

He says he contacted Katene recently about the issue who acknowledged "it’s a totally different mindset now".   Te Ao also reached out to Katene but did not receive a response.

Waikato-Tainui hosted this year's Matariki celebrations in Auckland. Source/File.

Petition - A longer-term outlook

A separate petition on the parliamentary website just last month to "create a public holiday for Matariki" was a dismal failure, as was another effort on a different platform several years ago.  Holden says petitions such as this need to be well promoted.

"I think it’s really about trying to get supporters of this particular change all in one place.  My guess would be that people just set them up and didn’t really do anything to promote them." 

Holden says his group is looking to build momentum behind their petition and is adopting a longer-term outlook.

"What we decided as NZ Republic was that it actually takes a group like ours to get behind these things and say 'right, let’s get stuck in and start finding people'," he says. 

"We’ve set it up so it’ll run for a year so if we do this every day for the next 300 days we should get a few thousand signatures by the end of it.”

In the two weeks that their petition has been live it has attracted more than 1,600 signatures.

The group are bolstered by the success of a recent petition to "include Aotearoa in the official name of New Zealand" which garnered over 6,000 signatures and is reported to have led Greens co-leader Marama Davidson to present the petition to parliament for consideration. 

Holden says it was "definitely an influence" for the approach his group has adopted towards their Matariki petition.

“I think, at the end of the day, if we could get tens of thousands [of signatures] that would be really good because it affects all of us."

Non-Māori group, Māori celebration

While Holden says NZ Republic does have Māori members, he acknowledges that the group is susceptible to criticism that they are primarily a non-Māori organisation putting their support behind a traditionally Māori celebration in order to promote their own agenda. 

"We do have a number of Māori members who are obviously supportive of this so it’s not like we’ve jumped on it.  Obviously, my background as a Pākehā doesn’t help change that perception but look, we are a group that has multiple perspectives and we do listen very closely to our Māori members on these things," he says.

"The other thing I’d say though... [is] unless we change the way that we choose our head of state, we’ll never have a Māori head of state and that to me just seems wrong."

'Māori members didn't want to push getting rid of Queen's Birthday'

As Matariki occurs around the same time of year as the Queen's Birthday, one option would be to replace the current public holiday with the indigenous celebration.  It's a move that would satisfy NZ Republic's stated goal of replacing the monarchy.  However, the group says that is not their immediate motivation.

"We’ve got a number of Māori members I spoke to particularly about this.  The main piece of feedback I actually got was that they didn’t want NZ Republic to push getting rid of the Queen’s Birthday straight away.  So our thinking was we’d put up a petition to say let’s just make Matariki a public holiday and then that would lead us to a discussion about 'do we still need to have a Queen’s Birthday?'   But really there are no other indigenous holidays on our public holiday calendar,” says Holden.

A unique opportunity

A decade ago, when Katene introduced the Matariki Bill to parliament, she said, "Matariki builds on a groundswell of support, for a new indigenous event to celebrate the unique place in which we live, to pay our respects to the land, the peoples, the history."

Despite backing Katene's bill in 2009, the Labour-led government has at this stage not shown renewed interest in recognising Matariki with a public holiday.

In 2015 Otorohanga College students presented a 12,000 signature-strong petition to parliament that saw 28 October recognised as a national day to remember the NZ Wars.