On Our Own Two Feet

Special Edition #1

By Jordan McCluskey (Ed.)

Flags have been in the news a bit recently, you may have noticed. A thing most people do not really think about can in a moment become a flashpoint for argument about a nation, its history, and its future. Witness the tortured contortions of politicians in the Southern United States, over the removal of the flag of the rebellious Confederacy, which launched a civil war 154 years ago for the right to own human beings as property. Or more humorously, CNN confusing a mock ISIS flag covered in drawings of sex toys at London Pride for an actual ISIS flag, and bringing on a security analyst to gravely analyse the new development.

The genesis of our flag is that of a product of colonialism. Our first flag came about not because of Te Tiriti O Waitangi, but commerce. Ships from New Zealand in the 1830s had difficulties arriving in Australian ports because not being a formal colony, they could not fly the Union Jack. In 1834, the British resident James Busby in consultation with Māori created the flag of United Tribes, which was then superseded by the Union Jack upon the signing of Te Triti in 6 February 1840 by most Rangatira. From there, a more local flag was created with the adoption of the British blue naval ensign in the 1860s, reaching its final current design in 1902 with Richard Seddon’s favoured design of the blue naval ensign with the red white- bordered stars of the Southern Cross. It is noticeable that each stage Māori get less and less of a say.

Te Tiriti and its principles which are now part of our national life, ask that the Pākehā and Māori work together in a spirit of partnership. Despite this the Pākehā flag remains dominant. Some Iwi still fly the flag of United Tribes, and in recent times the Tino Rangatiratanga flag has also been adopted by some. The government has recently also allowed the latter flag to fly from government buildings on days of national significance. To change the flag we only need to look north to the land of maple syrup, ice hockey and tarsands oil (it is horrible, google it), Canada, to see what kind of serious debate we might need to have.

Canada, as a British colony also had a Union Jack based ensign flag. In the 1960s the leader of the politically dominant Liberal party (then out of office) Lester Pearson, promised a rapid flag change. Elected in 1963, Pearson presided over a Canadian flag debate that was partisan, long, rancorous, and took no account of the views of indigenous peoples. In the end however, Canada got a flag that reflected its own self-determination, its status as an independent sovereign nation and a powerful, recognisable national symbol. Changing the flag did not accelerate in the slightest a move towards a Canadian republic, and Canada remains a federal monarchy within the Commonwealth (former British Empire countries sports and games club)

The New Zealand debate has been by contrast, lacklustre. Public meetings have had pitiful turnouts. The website for flag designs submitted by the public has descended into farce. The divide between the New Zealand people and its politicians is a subject for another blog post, but it is extremely disheartening to see people rubbishing a potential flag, a powerful new national symbol, because it is seen as the legacy project of the National Party Prime Minister, John Key. It is also a false argument to submit that because people died while fighting under our current flag, it can never be changed. Your relatives, and mine, didn’t die for a rectangular piece of blue cloth with red stars and a Union Jack on it. They died for our shared values of tolerance, egalitarianism, democracy and a fair go. If we change our national symbol, the values it previously represented will not fade away, if anything they will become stronger because we have chosen a new flag that belongs to all of us.

So where to from here? As the process draws closer, minds are becoming clearer and more people are focusing on the real issue. Voters will rank four preferred designs in November-December this year, and then the highest ranking design will face a run off referendum in March 2016 next year. Both referendums are binding. In under a year we might have a new flag, this is terrifyingly close, given the lack of public engagement. I want a new flag, and personally I favour the Tino Rangatiratanga flag as our new national flag, for historical reasons. However, if the winning design of the first referendum is objectively terrible, I will vote for the status quo. This will inevitably mean the issue is not discussed again for a generation. I was rather the change was done right, then just done for the sake of it. In closing, I ask you to do me one favour: talk to your family and friends about this debate. It is important.

In a time of such rapid global change, we need a flag that belongs to all of us, not some of us. I hope the flag is changed. It is time to stand on our own two feet.