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Celebrating Our Public Holidays

Celebrating Our Public Holidays

Keith Rankin, 1 February 2011

Upon the belated realisation that in 2011, as in 2010, Monday-Friday workers get 9 instead of the usual 11 public holidays, Labour has promised to 'Mondayise' Waitangi Day and Anzac Day. [Refer Scoop (28 Jan) Labour will protect everyone's holidays.]

This matter is very easily dealt with. Currently:

1. Four of the present 11 holidays are celebrated on the day they fall, with, when required as in 2010, substitute Monday or Tuesday "statutory holidays" for the benefit of Monday-Friday workers. These include Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Years Day.
2. Three - Queens Birthday, Labour Day, provincial holiday - are always celebrated on the nearest Monday or Friday and not on the actual anniversary date.
3. Two of the 11 by definition fall on a Friday (Good Friday) or a Monday (Easter Monday).
4. The remaining two of the 11 - Waitangi Day (6 February) and Anzac Day (25 April) - are celebrated when they fall, without substitute Monday, Tuesday or Friday holidays.

The 'debate' has proceeded about whether the final category of public holiday (eg Anzac Day) should be treated the same as Labour Day. This seems inappropriate because the actual dates themselves are very significant, much as Christmas Day will always be 25 December, and New Years Day will always be 1 January.

The obvious solution is to treat Waitangi Day and Anzac Day exactly the same as we treat Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Years Day. This answer dates from the 1940s when we introduced substitute 'statutory' holidays for 25-26 December, and 1-2 January.

The real issue is one of work-life balance. The current 'line in the sand' is that full-time wage and salary earners are entitled to a minimum of 20 days paid annual leave plus 11 paid public holidays. These entitlements represent part of the social dividend of economic growth; one means of ensuring that the benefits of past productivity growth can be shared; in this case the benefit takes the form of 'time' rather than 'money'.

Once we start to address the issue holistically - as a matter of work-life balance rather than looking to treat each public holiday as a special case - then one overwhelming problem emerges. For most New Zealanders, nine of the holidays are in the summer and autumn, and just two are in the winter or spring. In the period between our winter solstice and our summer solstice there is just one public holiday (Labour Day). In Northern Hemisphere countries, the balance is generally better, with an emphasis generally on spring and winter as times for special festivities.

Because holidays involve a lot of tradition, it's not practical to make radical changes. But evolution of public holidays is appropriate. Some traditions become less important, while the need for time-out becomes ever more important in our present world in which time has become our scarcest resource.

I propose that two holidays should go, and two new holidays be instituted. The holidays no longer relevant are 2 January and Queens Birthday. These need to be replaced with Mondayised holidays that celebrate the winter solstice and the spring equinox - Matariki and Dominion Day (26 September).

It is not clear to many of us why we have a holiday on 2 January. This is a specifically Scottish tradition, reflecting the relative importance of New Years Day in Scotland. What the day does in New Zealand is to pressure us to conflate Christmas (a traditional time for extended family gatherings) and the summer vacation (very much a celebration of the nuclear family) into a single extended 'silly season' when almost everything shuts down.

There is a good argument that 2 January should have been deleted in 1974 when 6 February became a public holiday. This, along with the introduction of daylight saving in the same summer, created an opportunity for New Zealanders to look to the period from Wellington Anniversary Day (nearest Monday to 22 January) to Waitangi Day as a better more relaxed time for family summer holidays, delinked from Christmas festivities.

By and large we have failed to take the initiative. The big Kiwi shutdown around New Year continues. My suggestion is to delete 2 January (and maybe to create a substitute statutory holiday on December 31- rather than 3 January - whenever New Years Day falls on a Saturday), with 1 January signalling the end of a summer solstice festival centred on Christmas. The first week of January would become much more like a normal work week than it is now.

The other holiday that we do not need is a holiday in the first week of June. The Queen's Birthday holiday is disruptive of tertiary education, occurring at the end of a semester already disrupted by Easter and Anzac Day. Britain recognises the monarch's birthday in mid-June, in the weekend and without a statutory holiday.

The public holidays that we do need are one's that explicitly or implicitly recognise winter and spring.

We have already come to appreciate Matariki in June. While the dates of Matariki vary with the moon, much as Easter varies, the sensible official recognition would be to hold a public holiday on the Monday closest to 21/22 June, the winter solstice. Typically, this would be in the second-last week of the school term. Some of us would wish to use the day to emphasise Matariki as an indigenous festival. For others, Matariki would simply be the winter holiday that Christmas was meant to be. A tradition might develop for Kiwis to eat traditional Christmas-like winter dinners on 'Matariki Sunday'.

Matariki would also be a much better date for awarding New Zealand honours, rather than 'Queens Birthday', a date that harks back to empire rather than to national autonomy.

New Zealand would benefit from holding a 'Spring Festival' on the last week of September, which would also be the first week of the school holidays, and the first week of daylight saving. The festival should begin with a Monday holiday (plus a Tuesday holiday in South Canterbury, which already celebrates 26 September) that may be called Dominion Day holiday, or could alternatively be known as Kowhai Day. The Dominion Day context provides us with opportunities to reflect on our changing relationship with the United Kingdom - a better day for this than an increasingly meaningless day in June. A spring festival could also be an ideal time to reflect on the multicultural reality of modern New Zealand, in contrast to Waitangi Day and Matariki which by their nature are more bicultural.

By recognising that public holidays per se are a critical part of our work-life balance, and by using a bit of imagination, we can create win-win outcomes for employers and employees, for Maori and non-Maori, by making small but significant changes to the quality of our public holiday experiences.

ENDS

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