Brexit: I teeter between the two, landing for the most part on “leave”

By Ellipsister (Ed.)

The proliferation of reckons on Brexit espouse a range of views and angles. Some speak of the collapse of opportunity for future generations, others to a xenophobic tornado tearing through the neighbourhoods of the white working class. Others despair about the stupidity of a particular class of voters, or the youth who did not care enough to vote, while some focus their analyses on the economic damage Brexit could wreak on a global scale. Others romanticise about the liberation of the people from their oppressor, while others bemoan their lost freedom of movement.

Beneath the surface noise there is, however, real opportunity to deconstruct the issues and begin to formulate a deeper understanding about:

  • the conditions that trigger mass action in contemporary societies;
  • social division within mass actions; and
  • the risks, opportunities, implications and consequences that arise through referendum

This post does not cover those points specifically, but simply points out that there are always learning opportunities, no matter what the situation is in which they arise.

Part of the purpose for this special edition  was to see what some of our writers thought about Brexit and to get closer to seeing what we could learn – and perhaps even un-learn from Brexit and its associated campaigns, and to discern how we might ensure that humanity and empathy remain core components of our global social fabric.

Over the past week, I have seen a division here in NZ. A good proportion of Māori supporting the leave campaign, and a good proportion opposing it. Within that matrix, there were racists, there were separatists, and there were genuinely held beliefs about the importance of tino rangatiratanga – no matter who was exercising it.  There were ‘bounded freedom’ champions, freedom of movement advocates, those disgruntled that their newly acquired British passports would no longer be fit for purpose, there were those genuinely concerned about the harm the leave campaign would do to non-white immigrants currently resident in the UK, others concerned about trade and economics.

Where do I sit? I teeter between the two, landing for the most part on “leave”. I intensely abhor the sickening levels of hate and violence that gripped the “leave” campaign. I also convulse somewhat at the mischaracterisations of the EU that attempt to sell a story of a loving Nanny gently caressing her independent nation-states in her ever-loving arms. I refer to these as the neo-TINA’s –  deceptively wedded to the idea that we must concentrate wealth and power.

I support the right of any peoples to self-determination. To determine for themselves what laws or customs they want to govern their country and who will interpret those laws.  My views undoubtedly relate to my commitment to tino rangatiratanga for Māori here in Aotearoa New Zealand. But I need to make this very clear –my support for leave – on principle, is not informed by that hideous campaign of hate and violence. It is tied to my own nostalgia for the rightful return of Māori sovereignty.

I had to ask myself the question: How could I, in principle, support “remain”, when I would 100 percent support an opportunity for Māori to exit from a system that does not serve us well? And no I do not argue for total isolation, or the building of fences, or the expulsion of immigrants, or a return to pre-contact Aotearoa. I argue for the guaranteed right of tino rangatiratanga expressed in Te Tiriti o Waitangi to be formally recognised. To enable Māori the right to choose to exit from the laws that constrain our tikanga and those laws that continue to incarcerate, abuse, and dispossess our people. And as a friend recently said to me, ‘if there is a Union Jack on the flag that symbolises the country I live in, then yes, I do get to have an opinion about Brexit’. That’s not to say you have to like it.

Brexit and The Hammerhead Sharks

By Andrew Chen

On Saturday I attended a BWB Conversations event with the author of Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story” Helene Wong and film-maker Roseanne Liang. Amongst discussion about what it means to be a Chinese-New Zealander, assimilation and integration of immigrants, and speaking out against microaggressions, there was one narrative that struck a chord with me. When asked about how we can build better connections between minority groups and with the majority Pakeha, Helene said that the key was for people to interact with each other and work together. Just talking to each other can be enough to humanise each other, to overcome an innate human distrust of the different, to see that we are all humans first and white or black or brown or yellow or red second.

In the wake of Brexit, this is very relevant and important. An ugly xenophobic racist streak has reared its head in recent months in the UK and US, and while it has always existed in the undercurrent, that dangerous mentality has captured enough people to achieve material change. Many commentators have said that the Remain campaign failed to strike an emotional chord with the populace, that experts were successfully characterised as elitist by the Leave campaign, that the Leave campaign were able to build a better narrative that went beyond rationality and spoke to the electorate.

Perhaps there is something to be said about how the Remain campaign actually communicated with people. Did they rely on mass media advertising and debates trying to be efficient, reaching many people at once, or did they actually go into the communities and talk in person, reaching only a few people or only one person at once? I understand that talking to small groups of people is expensive, in that political campaigning costs time and money and both of these are only available in limited quantities. But there is something about a one-hour debate on television that becomes inaccessible for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

There are lessons to be learnt from Brexit as the sentiment expressed by the Leave voters sweeps across the rest of Europe, across the United States, and even down in little old New Zealand. We’re going to see increasing interest from immigrants and refugees because we are damn lucky to be living in a pretty great country. How we deal with that speaks about who we are as a country, whether we are a country that welcomes people with open arms and gives everyone a fair go, or a country that prejudges people who look and sound different to the rest of us and puts policies in place to keep them out. We have seen from our politicians, from all sides of the spectrum, that our country may be heading down the second path.

There is a common tendency for social progressives to just shut out those who don’t agree. Everyone has a story of how they tried to call someone out on being racist or sexist or homophobic or otherwise offensive and had it backfire miserably. We learn from these experiences and argue that there are some people whose opinions cannot be changed and in the interests of our own mental welfare we should not bother to engage with them. Never read the comments is a common mantra, but that only allows the ill-informed, the misguided, and the offensive to continue perpetuating their views. We cannot keep shouting from our ivory towers, hope that the media amplify those voices, and then hope for that to equate to real change. The message has to be taken to the people, not projected at the people. It is not enough to just call them uneducated, uncultured, or impoverished and to just ignore them.

That means we have to get out of our echo chambers and go to where these other people are. We have to comment on the Herald’s posts on Facebook and the Stuff comment threads, we have to physically visit community groups and iwi, and we have to argue with our racist uncles at family dinners. That’s where “the other people” are, the ones who vote and happen to be in the majority. We have to go out of our way to say “that’s not okay” and seek to educate people. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of effort and pain, but it’s what we have to do to move away from the path we are on. It’s not something that we can just leave to the political parties or academic experts or business leaders. It’s not enough to just hope that those views will phase out over time; we need to give that change a nudge.

Helene Wong said two things in particular that resonated strongly with me. The first was a metaphor: that in our society now Pakeha are the sky and the minorities are the clouds. There are many clouds, of different shapes and sizes, but they only exist against the aerial landscape of the majority. We should strive to live in a society where we are all clouds, Pakeha included, co-operating and co-existing amongst a common sky. The second thing she said was that we have to be brave. I believe we have to speak up, and cannot just be apathetic, because apathy is what leads to the strengthening of existing power structures until they can no longer be fixed.

Kaua e mate wheke mate ururoa. Do not give up; no matter how hard the struggle is, keep fighting.

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.

On the meaning and design of a flag

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Someone will need to send me a new one if the referendum passes

By Chuan-Zheng Lee

There’s something about being away from home that makes you cling on to anything about it. My keyring has a kiwi on it, photos of One Tree Hill fill my desktop background, and a flag hangs boldly on my bedroom wall. Clearly, the flag means something to me.

Yet, I’ve struggled to be moved by either side of the flag debate. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve tried to care, really, I really have. But the more I think about it, the harder it gets to escape from this conviction: Symbols have exactly and only the meaning that we give to the symbol. We can adopt whatever symbol we want, and it’ll stand for us if we want it to.* The New Zealand flag means something to me because I grew up believing that it was “the New Zealand flag”. If we want to adopt a new one, I can just make that mean something to me too.


That’s pretty much my position on the flag. At this point, I suppose people will start throwing arguments at me to try to persuade me I should care. I’ll address a few.

“It looks like Australia’s flag.” Our flag first came into use in 1869. Australia’s had no such form until a flag competition after they federated in 1901. They didn’t copy us, but we still have first claim, and I refuse to cave just because Australia came up with a similar flag after us. They don’t get the flag as a consolation prize for losing pavlova.

More to the point, I don’t care if our flags have similarities. We’re quite similar countries, and I don’t mind enlightening people about the difference. The Commonwealth Star and different-coloured stars are obvious enough if you know what the flags are. Frankly, I spend more time educating people I meet in America that my accent isn’t Australian.

“It has the Union Jack on it.” I don’t have a problem with this association either. It’s empirically true that our culture largely derives from Britain’s. I don’t see why this needs to signify anything more than some aspect of our history that’s still visible today.

Now, this doesn’t mean we have to have it on our flag—its removal wouldn’t bother me at all, either. We might choose to emphasise other aspects of our history or identity—our Māori heritage, for example—and that’s fine too.

“Our soldiers fought under it.” Our soldiers fought for New Zealand; the flag is just an identifier. You don’t fight for a flag, you fight for a country. It’s not clear to me why we can’t change this identifier, and treat it as a continuation of the previous flag.

“It’s a waste of money.” As far as the government budget goes, $26 million isn’t exactly life-threatening, so this is a waste of money if, and only if, the exercise isn’t worthwhile in the first place. If we think it’s worth getting right, it’s a cost worth bearing.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. How can I say I don’t care about the question, and then defend the cost of asking it? My point is that “it’s a waste of money” doesn’t show we shouldn’t hold the referendum, because it relies on the premise that we shouldn’t hold the referendum. If my compatriots really want to settle this, that’s fine by me. I’ll go along for the ride. But if people have reasons for believing it’s a waste, they should make those arguments instead.


Flag of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, if we are going to redesign the flag, then there are a few things probably worth keeping straight. It’s not as if there’s no such thing as a bad flag: for a vexillological disaster, see the flag of Milwaukee, a city in Wisconsin.

Firstly, although I said that the meaning of symbols is arbitrary, we should still give some thought to the meanings themselves. Specifically, meanings of elements should be factually, not just aspirationally, connected to New Zealand. Virtually every design in the flag gallery does this, so I’m picking it’s uncontroversial.

Secondly, it’s worth keeping some basic principles in mind, like the ones that Ted Kaye of the North American Vexillological Association compiled in Good Flag, Bad Flag. The flag should be kept simple, “so simple that a child can draw it from memory.” With respect to their creators, this should rule out elaborate patterns like the one on the left below, or any of these. For the same reason, if there must be a silver fern on the flag, it should be stylised like the one in the middle, not the one on the right.

Too complicated

Good stylised fern

Not-so-good stylised fern

Please don’t

It should also contain no lettering. Specifically, it should avoid the letters “NZ”—the flag shouldn’t embed a reminder about who it belongs to! This means the 1974 Commonwealth Games logo should be left out. And this attempt (right) to combine “NZ” into a complicated rendition of the fern is, in the nicest way possible to its creator, a definite no-no.

Here’s a TED talk about these and other basic principles, interleaved with some hilarious commentary on some American cities’ flags. You really should watch it. Before I saw it, I really didn’t care about flags. Now, I have at least some minimal appreciation for good flag design.

* Obviously there are some limits to this. There are some symbols already “taken” by others whose meaning you just can’t escape, for example, the flag of the Confederate States of America. ^
† We formally adopted our flag in 1902, but that formality doesn’t change the fact that it was widely used before then. ^
‡ The fifth principle in Good Flag, Bad Flag is “be distinctive or be related”, and while Kaye recognises that the Union Jack symbolises connection to the Commonwealth, he criticises the flag of Manitoba, a province in Canada, for giving too much emphasis to it. I think relegating it to one quarter makes it distinctive enough—at least as distinctive as, say, Malaysia’s and Liberia’s are from the United States’. Then again, I’m not a vexillologist. ^

A Mediocre Idea

Special Edition #1

By Lamia Imam

Should New Zealand’s flag be changed? In short, yes probably.  I think a lot of us who in our personal lives are aligned to the political left might be irritated that our Prime Minister, who we don’t always hold in high esteem, has come up with this idea. But that is petty and unproductive. I’m a first generation Kiwi so I will happily admit that the current flag and I do not really share a warm fuzzy relationship wrapped in ancestral significance. In fact, my ancestors much like NZ’s tangata whenua were colonized by the Brits and therefore, I have a lot of ill feelings towards that regime and what it represents. The Union Jack aside, I also do not like the red, white and blue because to me it still symbolizes colonialism and US imperialism. But this is not about my aesthetic preference. This is about our national identity, the expression of our independence and our unique culture. Will changing the flag do that?

I always assumed that our flag would eventually change when we actually achieved something to deserve that change. We are not completely independent as a nation but we have been working towards it. Our judiciary is independent, our legislature is independent but our executive is not since the Queen of England is still our official head of state. I have spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand and by far people give me much more grief about still holding on to the Monarchy than how similar our flag is to Australia.

One thing that has really surprised me is that the flag discussion has not brought up the fact that we have a Constitutional Advisory Panel also looking at our constitutional arrangements. Their work suggests that there does not exist a lot of immediate national appetite to change the way we are set up as a country. But logically it makes no sense to me that we would change our flag while the Treaty settlement process is still on-going and while we are constitutionally speaking still tied to Britain. Some have cited Canada as a model for change. I do not believe the Canadian example is necessarily applicable to New Zealand, however, it is a compelling argument. Canada’s head of state is still the Queen of England but their flag does uniquely represent Canadians. There is an argument to be made that a flag change might propel us towards being a Republic, which would be a favourable outcome but I am not convinced that it will.

There is a Bill for the referendum to change the flag. The Select Committee just reported back on the Bill on the 29th of June. In a somewhat bizarre move, we are going to choose an alternative flag first and then decide whether we want to even change it. I think as a nation we should decide that we actually want a different flag first and then work to change it to something that reflects our identity, independence and culture. The media has been reporting that hardly anyone has shown up to the flag change meetings up and down the country which must be disappointing to the government.

The government often uses subjective understanding of what is a “priority” to them as way to refuse to address difficult policy problems. Changing the flag is not a civil rights issue and I think we can legitimately say that this change is really not a priority for Kiwis given the enormous problems the country is currently facing. I do think the flag should change. I do not think the current flag is inclusive or representative and I think it symbolizes a history of colonialism which is offensive. However, the process seems to be flawed and the timing seems to be wrong. I think John Key desperately wants something non-controversial to be part of his legacy as Prime Minister because “being really liked” is not very Statesman-esque. As ex-Minister Simon Power said in his valedictory speech – “Once in office, you’ve got to do something. That is why having a plan matters. Ideas also matter. In politics, ideas matter more than the political players themselves, because those people will come and go, but ideas endure.” John Key seems to be approaching this without a concrete plan. It is a good idea but it’s an ill-timed and ill thought out idea. I think the end result will be a banal flag with predictable designs. Like Canada, we will get used to it and accept it but I am not entirely sure that we will necessarily invoke John Key in our minds when we stand below it.

The Flag Debate

Special Edition #1

By Nicola Eccleton

I was about 18, and wandering along the waterfront at St Tropez (apologies for the bourgeois-ness), when we spotted one of those large, white, Georgetown registered, tax-havened launches flying an Aussie flag. My compatriot, of similar age, exclaimed “Hey! Kiwi flag,” and proceeded to argue with me that the New Zealand flag did, in fact, comprise of six white stars and a Union Jack on a blue background.

The startling realisation that not everyone recognised our flag was soon superseded by my growing understanding of colonisation and everything the Union Jack stood for, including assignation of the role of Head of State to a monarch on the other side of the planet.

The Union Jack is our history, which should be acknowledged, but it does not follow that we need to use it to represent what we have become. Interestingly enough, as I write this, the Charlestown massacre is in the news, and I have discovered that South Carolina flies the Confederate Flag. A flag that means hate, suppression and violence, is still flown on public buildings. Obama says it belongs in a museum. In New Zealand, the Union Jack does too.

It’s fair to say that I have long desired a new flag. It’s also fair to say I am really unexcited by the impending flag referendum. In trying to determine why, I can pinpoint only process, and John Key, that autocratic banker, famous for not caring about process, trying to turn this into a legacy project. The referendum is occurring before a genuine debate of the issues. And a panel chosen for its name recognition value incenses me. Call me crazy, but why can a genuine debate not be led by a panel of vexillologists, anthropologists, historians and designers? Or even a panel where half the people come from this group? Oh yes, there are a couple of academics, and I will be accused of academic snobbery. I also understand the importance of representation in politics, but seriously, who does Julie Christie represent; those with earning capacities over ten million per annum? Why are we educating people at all if they are not considered experts in their chosen fields? Why specialise in the study of flags, when if you wanted to be part of this discussion you should really have honed your sporting or business prowess? Why would you write a post, when you can just rant?

The other point that I find more interesting than any other is this chicken and egg questioning technique. “Would you like a new flag?” seems inherently the first question that should be asked, and it’s not. I am not actually convinced that this is the wrong way around. If we chose to change the flag, but didn’t agree on the design, we could end up forcing the issue and making an ill-considered, but expedient choice.

Yes, I would like a new flag. No, I am not particularly excited. And maybe, deep down, I’m just peeved. I wanted Aunty Helen to do it.

What makes a symbol?

Special Edition #1

By Andrew Chen

Symbols are visual metaphors – we see something, and it evokes a set of pre-conceived knowledge. We see ☮ and we think peace, anti-war, pacifist protests of the 70s and 80s, and all the free love that went along with that. It’s a symbol that was used by British nuclear disarmament activists made from the semaphore signals for the letters N and D, later used by anti-war campaigners in the US, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, crossing national and cultural boundaries around the world. A simple symbol conveys a lot of information – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.


A new flag is just another type of symbol – a visual image that should resoundly say “New Zealand” in a way that transcends language and geographic barriers. It should be something that we are proud of, something that when we carry overseas is immediately recognisable. When someone sees the flag, they should think “that’s a good country”. It should evoke some positive emotion, it should bring forth enjoyable memories, it should create some intangible sense that the country that the flag represents is of value. A new flag is as much a marketing exercise as it is about national identity.

In some ways it’s not too important what the actual symbol is, as long as it can be identified as uniquely New Zealand. That’s a good argument for why we should change the flag in the first place – the similarity to Australia’s flag does leave room for confusion, and from a branding perspective that leaves us in a dangerous place. Even with the status quo, New Zealanders do not proudly stand beside their flag – whether it’s at sporting events or when we’re selling tourism, the white fern on a black background features more commonly than our actual flag. For large swathes of the world and even large chunks of New Zealand, the existing flag evokes nothing. That’s something we need to fix.

Of course, symbols are not always independent or mutually exclusive. A flag is a place for multiple symbols to melt together, fighting for space on a limited canvas. The current flag perhaps uses symbols that do not exemplify New Zealand well, from the imperialistic vestige of the Union Jack to the naval waypoint of the Southern Cross (that we can’t even see half the time because of all the clouds). Most New Zealanders cannot relate to these symbols, and most foreigners cannot relate these symbols back to New Zealand. We’re long overdue for a rebrand.

For all the opponents who argue “why now?” the answer is that now is as good a time as any. We can postpone this indefinitely, but the longer we leave it, the longer our international image will be inhibited. We are lucky that we live in a country that doesn’t have the patriotic brainwashing of many others, and that we can even bring up the idea of changing the flag without being completely ostracised from society. The longer we leave the flag, the longer its legacy will last and the harder it will be to change. We have far better symbols than the existing flag, symbols that shout “NEW ZEALAND” to casual passers-by, symbols that New Zealanders are proud to show off to the world. Why should we continue to settle for a flag that poorly reflects who we are?

For all the opponents who argue that this process is costing too much, there’s no answer that will make them happy. Spend too little on the process and get accused of being undemocratic, spend too much and get accused of wasting public funds. How much is the right amount to spend? If we’re going through this process, it is far better to spend too much and get the flag right, than to spend too little and come up with a poor replacement. Let me be clear – we’re not going to be able to make everyone happy. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of politics and democracy, and sometimes compromises are not possible. There are indeed other important issues that need to be addressed, from poverty to housing to education. But our national identity is also similarly crucial, and getting this wrong has long lasting implications.

I don’t know what a new flag should look like. What I do know is that we have uniquely New Zealand symbols, from the Kiwi to the Silver Fern, that tell the world that New Zealanders aren’t far behind. When our young people go on their overseas experiences, I want a flag that makes the locals welcome the visitors with warm hugs. When our business people attend conferences and expos, I want a flag that makes people open up their wallets and trust that their money will be in good hands. When our team marches into the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, I want a flag that makes the crowd cheer louder than they cheer for any other country. We deserve a uniquely New Zealand flag to join our bag of symbols, a symbol that we can be proud of.