Opinion by Carolyn Skelton – I will be voting to retain our British colonial-NZ flag, for now, because the whole process related to March’s referendum is fatally flawed. We needed a far more in-depth discussion about the meaning and relevance of our current flag.
Furthermore, any change to rid ourselves of British imperial symbols needs to be part of a far deeper restructuring: changing the flag is a superficial exercise that masks our continuing subservience to Queen and empire(s). There hasn’t even been a far reaching and in-depth discussion of our current flag.
United Tribes of NZ Flag
The current NZ flag wasn’t the first used to represent NZ/Aotearoa. An earlier one, known as The United Tribes flag was designed in the 1830s. (See about this flag at the NZ History: Nga korero a ipurangi o Aotearoa website *)
It was seen necessary as NZ was not a British colony at that time, and ships built here needed a flag to fly and register under. An earlier design was rejected as it had no red in it, and apparently New Zealanders liked red as it was seen as an indication of “rank”.
Under British Resident James Busby’s authorisation, Māori chiefs voted on some designs, and a flag was selected. Following some tweaking by some in new South Wales , the British King approved the flag that became known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. It was considered an important step in encouraging Māori chiefs to act collectively.
“To northern Māori, the United Tribes flag meant that that Britain recognised New Zealand as an independent nation, and thereby acknowledged the mana of their chiefs.”
The Union Jack as NZ flag
After the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, the Union Jack replaced the United Tribes flag as NZ’s flag: **
“Some Māori, including the Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke, believed that Māori should have the right to fly the United Tribes flag alongside the Union Jack, in recognition of their equal status with the government. Heke’s repeated felling of the flagstaff at Kororāreka in 1844–45 was a vivid rejection of the Union Jack as a symbol of British power over Māori. The Ngāi Tahu chief Tūhawhaiki’s hoisting of the United Tribes flag on the island of Ruapuke in Foveaux Strait in the 1840s also symbolised Māori independence.”
The Union Jack was used as the NZ flag until the 1950s.
Current NZ Flag – imperialist maritime origins
The current NZ flag has strong maritime associations.*** A UK law of 1865 declared that all ships of a colonial government must fl a blue ensign with the colony’s badge in it. NZ had no such badge, but one was added in 1965, stamping NZ on it with red letters and a white border. In 1899 the southern cross stars were added as to make a signalling flag– four red stars in a white circle. This was first used at sea, but gradually migrated onshore.
Following a rise in flag waving at the outbreak of war in South Africa in 1899, PM Seddon introduce the NZ Ensign Bill in 1900 – pretty similar to our current flag. After some tweaking, the Ensign became a legal requirement for NZ government owned ships, eventually becoming recognised as NZ’s national flag.
The national Māori Flag, (also known as the Tino Rangatiritanga /Māori Independence flag),
was devised in the 1990s in connection with attempts to inform Maori of breaches of Te Tiriti. ****
In 2010 , with some support by the Māori Party, this flag was flown on the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day for the first time.
So, the alternative candidate flag
for the March referendum, retains the blue and stars from our current flag.
These elements are more a reflection of, not just our colonial history, but a narrow part of that history: that of the British and NZ navies. Slapped onto that remnant, is a fern and black colour. In the PM’s promotion of this flag, and the enlistment of selected high profile (ex)All Blacks to promote the flag, provides strong associations of masculine sporting prowess.
Thus, the candidate flag represents very selective and skewed elements of our history and culture. Many crucial aspects have are hidden by it: the whole of Māori struggle for sovereignty, independence, equality and rights; plus the struggle for women to gain equality n a very masculine dominated national culture.
Flawed process and flag long list
The whole process of selecting a candidate flag was flawed, with the PM’s desire for a fern leading public discussions. Among the long list of alternative flags, the ones that seemed to me to represent a broader view of our history and culture/s, were the variously coloured koru ones with stars: not one of them made the long list.
Like these ones:
Or this with a strong Māori motif, with elements of the United Tribes flag:
Instead we got a short list of three fern designs and one colourless, unimaginative koru design representing very little.
Change will come, and will acknowledge wider changes, culture and struggles
The alternative, referendum, candidate flag brand us commercial-style with strong associations of a rugby and masculine dominated sections of our society – and laughable contains unacknowledged elements of British imperial maritime dominance (blue background to the stars), even while claiming to shed trappings of being a British colony.
When we change our national flag, we need a deeper discussion of this long history of changing cultural processes and struggles: we need to acknowledge Te Tiriti, and the first inhabitants of this land; and we need a flag that represents the whole of the country and it’s cultures.
*’United Tribes flag’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/flags-of-new-zealand/united-tribes-flag, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 21-Jan-2016
** ‘Union Jack’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/flags-of-new-zealand/union-jack, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 11-May-2015
***’The NZ flag’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/flags-of-new-zealand/maritime-origins, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Nov-2015
**** ‘The national Māori flag’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/flags-of-new-zealand/maori-flag, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 11-May-2015