Monday, August 14, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I’ve recently been fretting a little about the matter of public holidays in New Zealand. Not because I’m against them (quite the opposite) and not because I want them in some way reformed. But because every so often there is a quite unnecessary controversy about them.

To remind you, we have in New Zealand 10 public holidays which the whole nation celebrates. They are New Year’s Day and the Day After New Year’s Day (1 and 2 January); Waitangi Day (6 Febuary); Good Friday and Easter Monday (moveable dates, usually in April); Anzac Day (25 April); Queen’s Birthday (5 June); Labour Day (23 October); and Christmas Day and Boxing Day (25 and 26 December). On top of this, each of twelve designated regions celebrates its own Anniversary day. This means that every New Zealander enjoys eleven statutory holidays - so employees must be paid on those days. There is also provision for some holidays that fall on the weekend to be “Mondayised”, so that workers don’t miss out on a day off.

In the past, New Zealand has celebrated other holidays. Empire Day was a quasi-public holiday from 1903 to 1958, when it became Commonwealth Day and then faded away as New Zealand no longer thought of itself as a version of Britain in the Pacific. In 1907, New Zealand became a “dominion” (whatever obscure thing that may mean) and for a very short time Dominon Day was celebrated, but it disappeared quite quickly (apparently it lingered longest in Wellington, where they have a greater taste for constitutional obscurities). Occasionally people have suggested the creation of new public holidays. In 2016 there was a petition asking for a public holiday commemorating the so-called “Land Wars” (i.e. the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s), but the suggestion was not picked up.

It is a very easy game to point at the irrationality of some of our public holidays. Queen’s Birthday celebrates a totally notional event (of course it is never on the reigning monarch’s real birthday). Why do we have Anzac Day – the day commemorating sacrifices in wartime – on the date of what was, when all legends are washed away, a foolish and failed campaign? Waitangi Day will always be a site of controversy – which is why some people have tried forlornly to replace it with a New Zealand Day or even to revive Dominion Day. Then there is the matter of those provincial Anniversary days. Provinces in the political sense were only a very short-lived phenomenon in New Zealand and their foundation is not something most people would bother to celebrate if the holidays had not been established for so long. In fact when a “Land Wars” day was proposed, somebody suggested it could replace all the redundant Anniversary days and therefore not clutter up the calendar with yet another holiday. But then, irrational of not, some provinces still make a big thing of their Anniversary days and hold special events (like the harbour regatta in Auckland), so again the suggestion did not fly.

Quite apart from this, there are those insistent secularists and monetarists (often the same people) who nag away at the special status of the Christian festivals of Good Friday, Easter and Christmas. One level of their attack is to say that most New Zealanders aren’t practising Christians anyway (almost true – but repeatedly polls have shown that most New Zealanders are in favour of retaining these holidays). Another is to claim to be ethnically aware and ask why we shouldn’t celebrate some indigenous festival – such as the Maori New Year Matariki. (Some Maori also proposed Matariki as a public holiday – as did the New Zealand Republican Movement, which said it should replace Queen’s Birthday).

But, transparently, the main objection of monetarists to Good Friday and Easter Sunday (and Anzac Day) is that there is some limited closure of shops and other commercial outlets on those days. How often I have heard whines about garden centres being closed on Easter Sunday, and wondered why eager gardeners couldn’t have bought what they wanted the day before or after that. Did it really inconvenience anybody that such centres were closed for a few hours on those days?

The real aim of neo-liberals is, of course, to attack the whole principle of public holidays. I am as aware as you are that on Anzac Day or Labour Day or Waitangi Day, most New Zealanders do not spend most of the day meditating on the sacrifices of our armed services or the struggles of the working class or our very imperfect founding document. Most see it simply as a wlcome holiday.

To the monetarist neoliberal, however, a public holiday is a barrier to commerce; a halt to the most sacred principle of making money. To remove those special days, or have most people still working on them, would be to cap the whole neoliberal exercise that has been on track for the last thirty years or so. That is, to turn New Zealand into a “24/7/365”  country, where shops would be open all hours all days all year and where there would be no special extra pay for those who have to work on public holidays.

My own own view is that, irrational or not; misremembering parts of our history or not; public holidays at the very least remind us that we had a past as a nation, and that we came from somewhere. And on top of that, I have the deep-seated notion of “jubilee” – that is, the necessity for a time when all work is set aside and people stop focusing on making money for a day or so and reflect or enjoy themselves as they please.

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