The Flag Debate: Why We Need It

Special Edition #1

By Joshua Hitchcock

Originally posted on Ka Tonuitanga (4 November 2014).

Contrary to the opinion of many that I have seen over the past week the debate over our national flag is a serious issue and one that I am glad we are having. The flag is a symbol of who we are as a people and providing a space to discuss this is a positive step. This debate is also much more than a debate about a flag design. It is another step in path of understanding who we are as a nation and of asserting our independence in the world. Many have made the mistake of viewing the upcoming referenda in a vacuum, ignoring the history, and future, of reform that this is one part of.

Yes, there are more important constitutional debates to be had. The issue of a republic and the role that Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the relationship between Māori and Pākehā are two issues that we must address. But these are issues that we are not ready to debate yet. Public discourse over Te Tiriti is too ill-informed, too knee-jerk, too outright racist, for us to seriously contemplate a national conversation over its place in our constitutional arrangements. Even issues such as Māori representation brings out the worst in people and that makes up only a small part of the partnership envisioned by Te Tiriti.

So where then do we place the flag debate? It is a continuation of a theme. We live in a generation where, in the absence of war, depression, or a nation divided by sport; we can start talking about what it means to be citizens not only of this whenua, but of the entire world that we inhabit. We started the conversation in the 1990s with a reform of our electoral system. Reform driven by the failures of the 4th Labour Government. As a nation we can together to change the way we govern ourselves and our representative democracy was strengthened as a result.

And slowly but surely we have gone about this reform on a case by case basis. The Privy Council has been replaced by the Supreme Court; the battle for the recognition of Māori rights has largely been won, with redress payments and co-governance arrangements proliferating without creating too much anger within the Pākehā community; and the social contract was restored with the landmark social programmes of the 5th Labour Government – working for families, kiwisaver, and the national superannuation fund.

Changing our flag is the next step in the reform. It is the most visible symbol of Aotearoa / New Zealand. At the moment it reflects our colonial past and all the good and bad that has arisen because of that. A new flag will mark a turning point in our constitutional history. We can quite literally place a stake in the ground to work on discussing the more important constitutional issues that we need to address over the coming generation.

My hope is that we select a flag which respects and acknowledges our Māori and our Pākehā cultures. If we can point to our flag (and while we are at it, we should officially change our name to Aotearoa / New Zealand) as a symbol of the partnership between Tangata Whenua and those tangata who have joined us on this whenua then that is a powerful platform to build future constitutional change on.