Story: Anniversaries

Page 5. Sesquicentennial, 1990

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A new mood

During the 1970s and 1980s there was a major questioning of New Zealand identity. The belief in material progress, the British heritage, the benign role of government and the idealisation of the heroic male pioneer – all of which had loomed large in 1940 – was being challenged. Immigration had made the population more diverse and, above all, there was a strident Māori protest movement which focused on the failure of the government to live up to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Kōtuku, white heron

The symbol for New Zealand 1990 was the kōtuku or white heron. In Māori tradition the Kōtuku guided the god Tāne to the three baskets of knowledge and then, after this one flight, died. So the bird became associated with rare and never-to-be-repeated occasions.

The future not the past

The sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of New Zealand in 1990 featured little celebratory self-satisfaction and praise of the pioneers. Michael Bassett, the government minister responsible, insisted that ‘commemoration’ not ‘celebration’ be the focus. The only re-enactments were of the landing of the settlers at Petone Beach and a replay of the debate about the Treaty at Waitangi before it was signed (with actor Bruno Lawrence starring as missionary William Colenso).

Many anniversaries

Unlike the 1940 centenary, the anniversaries of British settlement or sovereignty were not remembered. Rather, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi took centre stage. However, fearing Māori protest, Bassett and the 1990 Commission which he appointed to oversee the commemoration diluted the issue by emphasising other anniversaries, some of which were debatable. Besides the treaty they included:

  • 1,000 years of known habitation of New Zealand
  • the 150th anniversaries of Auckland and Wellington (Whanganui, Johnsonville and Akaroa were sometimes included)
  • the 100th anniversary of universal male suffrage (one man, one vote) – which had actually occurred in 1879
  • 100 years since the beginning of the welfare state
  • 100 years of the establishment of solidarity of the union movement
  • the 75th anniversary of the Anzac Gallipoli landings in the First World War.

In addition, the commission’s mission emphasised multi-culturalism, diversity, tolerance and partnership. They encouraged looking to the future, not the past.

Major events

There were two major events.

The Commonwealth Games in Auckland

The games opened on 24 January with a spectacular multimedia performance representing the migration to Aotearoa of waves of peoples – Māori, British settlers, and then of other diverse groups.

Vercoe’s speech

Bishop Vercoe’s speech at Waitangi on 6 February 1990 became famous. Among his words were: ‘I want to remind our [Treaty of Waitangi] partners that you have marginalised us [Māori]. You have not honoured the treaty. We have not honoured each other in the promises we made on this sacred ground. Since 1840 the partner that has been marginalised is me – the language of this land is yours, the custom is yours, the media by which we tell the world who we are – are yours.’ In response the queen herself acknowledged that the Treaty of Waitangi had been ‘imperfectly observed.’1

Waitangi Day

There was a day of commemoration at Waitangi on 6 February. Two special 1990 projects – 20 waka taua (war canoes) and visiting tall sailing ships – were present to greet Queen Elizabeth II when she arrived on a launch, reinforcing the message that all New Zealanders were migrant peoples.

The queen was escorted to the shore by the waka followed by outrigger canoes from the Pacific communities. There was considerable protest. The queen flinched when a black T-shirt was thrown close to her, and most of the speeches were drowned out – except challenging words from Whakahuihui Vercoe, Anglican bishop of Aotearoa. But there was no violence and the hot afternoon saw dance, music and drama from the country’s multicultural communities – ranging from the City of Wellington pipe band and the Lochiel marching team, to the Cook Islands national ensemble.

Community events

The 1990 Commission did not directly organise events as the government had in 1940, but instead allocated $21 million to fund projects, administrative support and promotion. The result was more than 6,000 community events, including such things as a competition for family biographies, a scented garden in Christchurch and the restoration of the historic Scotts Ferry site in Manawatū. There were no memorials put up.

Some noted the absence of fun in the anniversary. In Wellington there was an attempt to remedy this with a sesqui carnival in Newtown and on the waterfront, but it was so poorly attended that it closed after 12 days owing $6.4 million.

There were few cultural legacies, although the first volume of a new Dictionary of New Zealand biography was launched (although not initially planned as a sesquicentennial project) and the Australian government gave $1 million for oral history projects.

Footnotes:
  1. New Zealand Herald, 7 January 1990, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Anniversaries - Sesquicentennial, 1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/anniversaries/page-5 (accessed 18 October 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012