Academic applauds making public holiday for 'unique, distinctive' Matariki

Creating a new public holiday to celebrate Matariki would provide "something unique and distinctive" to differentiate New Zealand's identity from other countries, says an academic.

The Labour Party announced on Monday that if re-elected come October 17, it would create a new public holiday to recognise Matariki, a star cluster which signals the start of Māori New Year, considered a time of celebration, reflection and renewal. 

The holiday would fall on a Monday or Friday within Matariki, which is typically observed by the rise of the star cluster. In 2020, the Matariki period was between July 13 and 20.

"Celebrating Matariki every year will give Māori a chance to share our unique traditions, our history and our stories with the rest of New Zealand," Labour's deputy leader Kelvin Davis said. "Matariki means many things to many people, but for me it will always be a day where I will reflect on how far we have come as a country and be proud.

"None of our current public holidays recognise Māori culture and tradition. Making Matariki a public holiday is another step forward in our partnership as a people and a further recognition of te ao Māori in our public life."

Dr Ella Henry, an associate professor and the director of Māori advancement at AUT, welcomes the policy.

"[Matariki] is an important part of the traditional Māori celestial calendar," she told The AM Show.

"It is the time of the year when we know the end of one cycle has come and the beginning of a new one, in terms of planting and planning and preparation. It is very much a celebration of a new calendar year.

"I absolutely applaud the idea of turning it into a statutory public holiday because it is something unique and distinctive to this country. You look at other nations around the world that celebrate their national identity and heritage with special days and they are an important part of who and what we are. It differentiates us."

Dr Henry believes Matariki is "grounded in our identity and our place in the world" and doesn't imagine pushback from Māori against the idea.

"I think it is great to have a reason to have a fireworks display in the winter."

Matthew Tukaki, executive director of the Māori Council, told Newshub the holiday would contribute to creating social cohesiveness between the people of New Zealand. 

"It is a wonderful idea that finally we get to celebrate a unique New Zealand holiday in terms of Matariki, the Māori New Year. I think it is a great opportunity to create social cohesiveness and a better understanding between Māori and non-Māori."

He hopes that the holiday would also come with an effort to educate Kiwis about Matariki.

"There is a huge amount of history behind it as well. People forget that Māori and Pacific people use the stars and use the heavens to navigate right across the Pacific. It's one of the reasons we find ourselves here in New Zealand today.

"It is about adding an element of history to it. If we do have a long weekend, that long weekend cannot just be about let's just have a holiday and a barbecue in the backyard. 

"But let's really run an education and awareness campaign about what Matariki really means. Let's throw in navigation by the stars, let's throw in the historical nature of what led Maori to land on these shores as the first arrivals.

"That creates more understanding, that creates more social cohesiveness." 

Tukaki said Matariki is already being taught and celebrated in some schools and workplaces.

"It's already all there. What we are doing is nothing more than consolidating it and creating a public holiday that will live forever in the psyche of the country."

The economic cost

There are concerns about what another public holiday could mean for business.

While the holiday wouldn't begin until 2022 - providing businesses time to prepare and recover from COVID-19 - Dr Henry said that twelve public holidays on top of four weeks annual leave is "a lot for business to bear". 

She said if a public holiday was to be taken away in exchange for introducing one for Matariki, she'd suggest Queen's Birthday.

Tukaki is also concerned about the impact on the economy.

"The next part we need to do is focus on the broader nature of the economy and what this might have as an impact on business and industry."

He said we have a plethora of provincial anniversary holidays that could be consolidated "without having a broader impact on the economy by increasing the number of days that business and industry will have to recover". The economy, Tukaki said, runs on a national or international timeline, so the location-specific anniversary holidays can create disruption.

Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett agrees we need to remove a public holiday before adding another.  

"[A Matariki holiday is] a good decision when you look at some of the other aspirations around inclusiveness and society. I probably question where the costs may fall.

"The cost is going to fall on employers and that becomes a cost for the business, so ultimately, it will fall, as a cost, on consumers as well."

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that compared to other OECD countries, New Zealand doesn't have many statutory holidays and "it would be good to break up the long run through winter". Eighteen OECD countries have more holidays than us and 12 have fewer.

Davis also said that a new holiday would help out the domestic tourism and hospitality sector "as New Zealanders plan mid-winter getaways and will also allow the tourism industry to market Matariki globally to international travellers as a uniquely New Zealand winter experience in years to come".

"It is important to acknowledge that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on businesses and public holidays can create additional costs, which is why it wouldn't come into force until 2022."