How Should A Progressive Vote in the Flag Referendum?

Geoff SimmonsTreaty

Any progressive is on the horns of a dilemma in this upcoming referendum.

In one corner, we have the current flag, a despoiled British naval ensign, and a symbol of a bygone imperialist era.

In the other corner, we have the contender, a beach towel at best, poorly designed and a hodge-podge of old and new symbols.

It really is Clayton’s choice. But how should a Progressive – someone who wants to see us move beyond the colonial era and fully honour the Treaty of Waitangi – vote? Should we keep the current symbol of imperialism or throw in the towel?

According to a One News poll, 85% of Maori are against change – the strongest opposition in any group.

We talked to Maori tikanga expert Haare Williams to see what he thinks. Haare is an educator, former broadcaster, artist, poet and composer. He was born in Gisborne and raised by his grand-parents in remote Ohiwa Harbour speaking no English until he went to school at eight.  As a former executive director with the 1990 Commission, Haare oversaw the construction and assembly of twenty-one waka at Waitangi for the 1990 Sesquicentennial.

Who have you been talking to about this issue?

I have canvassed Maori at hui, wananga and tangi and as well with rangatahi (youth) forums over the issue of a flag change.

What do flags represent to Maori?

When a New Zealand-owned ship was impounded in Sydney for not flying a flag in March 1834, the British Resident, James Busby called chiefs to Waitangi to select a national flag. They chose this one, which became the flag of The Independent United Tribes of New Zealand known as Te Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Aotearoa.  

As they owned a good share of coastal shipping on our waters, they chose a flag that promised security, justice and peace.   Besides, it gave them access to a burgeoning international market. By then they knew that flags stood for mana, a word not used in the treaty five years later. It also meant control. With the treaty in place, Maori entered the spirit of building a new nation, economic and political alongside the protection of natural resources. The rule of democracy or the rule of many, did not count as Maori outnumbered the settler population by 500 to every Pakeha living in Aotearoa.

Flags quickly sprouted on marae flagpoles across the nation. Te Kooti of Turanganui-a-Kiwa (Poverty Bay) decided to match British authority with a personal flag measuring twenty-two feet, and he sat in the saddle upon a great white Arab stallion he named Pokaikaha which matched the mana (power) of General Duncan Cameron. The Hau Hau movement flew flags which signaled mana over lands in Taranaki and Waikato. Rua Kenana, the self proclaimed prophet of Maungapohatu had his peaceful flag confiscated in 1916 as “a rebellious flag.” In recent years the Tino Rangatiratanga flag attracted public angst as “the flag of those troublesome protestors.”

What do Maori think about the current flag?

I think most Maori accept the flag should be changed, but the timing, the pressure and the lack of canvassing of Maori in the process is disappointing.

The service men and women I have talked to also feel that changing the flag would dishonor their efforts in the war. It might be easier to wait until this current generation of service men and women has passed.

What does the silver fern represent to Maori?

The rangatahi (young people) I have spoken to don’t like the alternative flag that has been put forward. It is a sporting flag, and we are more than a sporting nation.

What should our national flag represent?

For me, it is a national expression of oneness, of pride and mana across our land and territorial waters. It says we are unlike anything else in the world. Our current flag has deep symbolic and emotional meaning, which is much more than a mere intrinsic design.

At the core of our society are the storehouses of two rich cultures, Maori and Pakeha who between them are forging a third which embraces the principle of two cultures, Maori as Tangata Whenua and Pakeha as Tangata Tiriti who between them have created an emerging new New Zealand culture in which both tikanga Maori and Tikanga Pakeha are respected, accepted and protected for their separate but complimentary values. This hybrid culture is flexible enough to welcome later cultures such as Pasifika and other strands as we grow and change the increasingly rich diversity of a multicultural landscape.

How do you think people should vote in the flag referendum?

We should hold the decision to change the flag until 2040 and allow time to weld our nation under the wairua (living spirit) of a uniting banner.

2040 is only twenty-five years away. In 1990 a mere twenty-five years ago our nation celebrated our Sesquicentennial. By 2040 we will all have reason to celebrate a treaty that is like no other.

For a start the land settlement process will have reached a new and exciting dynamic. We will have buried the lizards of colonisation in the long drop of colonial history. The country will be well on its way towards reconciliation, justice and peace. Maori will emerge with sizable assets which will be translated into strong business partnerships which will provide the resources for management and development together with kaitiakitanga, the protection of natural resources like forestry, water, seabed and seashore.

What can we learn from this process for next time? 

To prepare for 2040, we need to inscribe Maori values or tikanga into state policy and into a constitution. A new culture of professional leaders, Maori and Pakeha will emerge who are comfortable in both cultures and languages looking, not just to justice and history but beyond to business and development capitalism.

Make people richer, make our service men and women richer, make Maori richer and we are all richer as a nation.

If we got this process right, why should we wait until 2040 to change the flag?

It will probably take us that long anyway. First Maori need to have the Treaty recognised, then we need to consult on a flag change in the spirit of a true partnership – as the Treaty intended.

Our Treaty is like no other – indigenous cultures in other nations can’t believe that we have it. The Treaty created the legitimacy for a new iwi (Pakeha) to enter into our land. Honouring that agreement will allow us to achieve our potential as a culture and a nation.  

I was involved in the 1990 Sesqui celebration and we have seen a lot of progress since then – such as the [foreshore and seabed] hokoi and advent of Maori TV. It will probably take us another 25 years to get us to where we need to be.

How Should A Progressive Vote in the Flag Referendum? was last modified: March 24th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.