The Flag Conversation and Issues of Distraction

Over the past few months there has been an intensified promotional campaign for the upcoming ‘flag referendum’ due to take pace in just a couple of weeks. It has been an interesting campaign to watch and I remain skeptical about the intention and timing of the process. On the whole however most people remain uninformed about the positioning of flags in Aotearoa and that there are multiple flags, and versions of the current flag that are used. Also little is shared in mainstream media about the original flag chosen on 20 March 1834 by Iwi within the north. This blog seeks to provide information that has been shared about the history of flags in Aotearoa.

The call for a new flag is not new. There has been long term discontent with the privileging of our colonisers representation of this country through the current national flag.   The ‘Politics of Distraction’ have worked well over the past few months and have managed to move the debate away from a need to ensure the representation of Aotearoa in a contemporary context is relevant to our positioning within the Pacific, with Māori as Indigenous Peoples and which affirms our Treaty relationships. The announcement that $26million would be spent on the process has lead to much discussion about the worthiness, or otherwise, of spending such a significant amount of funds on a flag debate. That is distraction #1.

Where I agree that there are many kaupapa that should be supported with such funding, we need to remember that we have lived under a colonial image for many generations and we have been seen as an appendix to the British empire, a footnote to the colonial text. A change is well overdue. The issue of the $26million needs to be seen in the context of a right wing government that is cutting funding to those in need and that those cuts far exceed $26million. This debate could have been done for far less than $26million, however the key issue is that we need to get rid of governments that continue to privilege neoliberal economic profiteering over and above the wellbeing of our citizens.

The timing of the referendum aligns with the Rugby World Cup. Winning the world cup has meant the media and our lives have been dominated by two flags – (i) the current national flag and (ii) the silver fern on black. The Prime Ministers has consistently promoted the silver fern and timing around the Rugby World cup provided a means by which to motivate the national spirit. That is Distraction #2.

The flag debate has also provided distractions away from other critical issues of the time. Developing awareness of the TPPA and its implications for us, dealing with issues of growing poverty, the limited coverage of the fact that John Key has lied about the cost of medicines month after month, have all at one time or another been marginalised by yet another ‘flag issue’.

So what does the flag mean? Where did it come from? What was the original flag of this country? What is the position of the Māori flag in Aotearoa? These are all key questions that even after months of panel work many people still do not know the answers to. So how can people make informed decisions in the upcoming referendum?   What I would suggest is that we do not let rugby world cup fever or anti-$26million spend be the determining factor in terms of selecting a new flag.   We need to consider more strategically how we want to be represented into the future. It has taken 114 years to have this referendum so lets not just throw away the opportunity to make a change.

Making an informed decision is critical. Te Wharepora Hou provides the following information regarding a range of flags that have been a part of the representation of this country since the 1830’s.

The following discussion of the United Tribes flag is provided in the discussion of the history of the ‘New Zealand’ flag at:


Maori chiefs choose a flag

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On 20 March 1834, 25 Far North chiefs and their followers gathered at Busby’s residence at Waitangi to choose a flag to represent New Zealand. A number of missionaries, settlers and the commanders of 10 British and three American ships were also in attendance.

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Following Busby’s address, each chief came forward in turn to choose a flag, while the son of one of them recorded the votes. The most popular design, a flag already used by the Church Missionary Society, apparently received 12 votes, with the other two options preferred by 10 and three chiefs. Busby declared the chosen flag the national flag of New Zealand and had it hoisted on a flagpole to the accompaniment of a 21-gun salute from HMS Alligator.

The new flag was then sent back to New South Wales, from where – after some tweaking – it was despatched to King William IV. The King approved the rejigged flag, a drawing of which was circulated via the Admiralty with instructions to recognise it as New Zealand’s flag. It came to be known as the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, the title adopted by the group of northern chiefs at subsequent meetings.

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Busby’s hope that the flag would encourage Māori to act collectively was partially fulfilled when many of the chiefs involved met again to sign a Declaration of Independence in 1835. 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 flag continued to fly in various places around the Bay of Islands, and on ships trading with Sydney. Ships calling at other ports spread it around the rest of New Zealand. The United Tribes flag remains important to northern Māori.


The origins of the current NZ Flag is described as follows:


Maritime origins

The roots of New Zealand’s present flag lie in the United Kingdom’s Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865, which ruled that all ships owned by a colonial government must fly the Blue Ensign with the badge of the colony on it. New Zealand at that time did not have an official badge or emblem, and so flew the Blue Ensign without a distinguishing badge. In 1866, the government steamers St Kilda and Sturt were reprimanded by visiting British ships for flying the Blue Ensign without the colony’s badge. This embarrassment prompted the government to devise an emblem for placement on the flag, in compliance with the Act.

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Initial ideas for the design of New Zealand’s emblem included the seal of New Zealand and the words ‘New Zealand’, but both were found to be too difficult to work into the design of the Blue Ensign. The four stars of the Southern Cross were also proposed, but were rejected as not being exclusively representative of New Zealand. In 1867, the colonial government settled on the abbreviation ‘NZ’ in red lettering with a white border to represent New Zealand on the Blue Ensign. In 1869 this emblem was replaced by the earlier suggestion of the Southern Cross, made up of four red stars with white borders.

The signalling flag

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Officially the flag with the Southern Cross was for maritime purposes only but it came to be used on land, even though the Union Jack remained the legal flag of New Zealand. Further confusion was caused by the introduction of an International Code of Signals, which led to the adoption of a signalling flag in 1899. The signalling flag displayed the red stars of the Southern Cross inside a white disc.

It too was for use at sea or in foreign ports, but it soon came ashore onto public buildings and commercial advertising. During debates in Parliament it was described as ‘mutilated’, ‘an abortion’ or more curiously, as ‘a Hennessy’s brandy capsule’. With the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 and its associated patriotism and flag-waving, confusion surrounding the flag was an embarrassment to Premier Richard Seddon.

Making the flag official

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Seddon’s response was to introduce a New Zealand Ensign Bill in 1900 to make the Blue Ensign with the stars of the Southern Cross the legal flag of New Zealand. The bill sailed through Parliament but hit a stumbling block in Sir Robert Stout, who was acting as Governor in the absence of the Earl of Ranfurly. Stout felt that the clause reserving the Act for Her Majesty’s approval cut across the Governor’s right to decide an appropriate course of action. Seddon refused to alter the offending clause, as he considered a constitutional principle to be at stake. In the end, the wrangling was irrelevant as the British Admiralty had other concerns about the bill.

The Admiralty objected to the proposed use of the Blue Ensign ‘for all purposes’, as set out in the preamble to the bill. In the United Kingdom, the privilege of flying the Blue Ensign was reserved for government ships and other distinguished vessels. It was feared that this distinction would be watered down should the New Zealand bill be approved, as all New Zealand-registered merchant ships would then be granted the right to fly the Blue Ensign. The New Zealand government therefore agreed to restrict the use of the Blue Ensign at sea to ‘vessels owned and used by the New Zealand Government’, or where a warrant to fly it had been obtained from the Admiralty. The earlier bill was replaced by a modified New Zealand Ensign Bill, which was passed by the House on 5 November 1901 after debate about whether the Southern Cross should have five stars as on the Victorian flag. King George V approved the Act on 24 March 1902 and the Governor’s proclamation to this effect was published in the New Zealand Gazette on 12 June 1902. A description of the flag followed on 27 June 1902, detailing alterations to the size and position of the stars. The Act was replaced by various Shipping and Seamen’s Acts, including those of 1903 and 1908, but the provisions concerning the New Zealand flag remained effectively unchanged until the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981 came into force.


Tino Rangatiratanga: The Māori Flag

The exclusion of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag from the final selection is significant and if people are seeking to make a statement then adding that flag to the list and voting it as ‘1’ on your preferred options makes much more of an impact, and much more sense, that writing ‘Keep the current New Zealand flag’. Adding and voting for the Tino Rangatiratanga flag is a statement about our positioning on our land.   A description of the meaning of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag is as follows:

The various elements of the national Māori flag represent the three realms of Te Korekore, potential being (Black, top); Te Whai Ao, coming into being (Red, bottom); and Te Ao Mārama, the realm of being and light (White, centre). The koru is symbolic of a curling fern frond, representing the unfolding of new life, hope for the future and the process of renewal. The flag should always be flown as depicted above, that is, with the black section at the top, the top part of the koru closest to the flagpole, and the red section of the flag at the bottom.

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We have for many years argued that we do not want to be represented through colonial imagery. The design and creation of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag in 1990 was a critical statement for Māori movements. It said that we sought symbols that represent not only Māori but Aotearoa.

The question we need to ask is whether we are willing to live another 114 years with the current national flag representing who we are to the world. I, for one, am not.

PM Insults are an act of State Abuse

We have to seriously question the ability of anyone to govern a country when they resort to flippant offhand insults as a means by which to not respond in any meaningful way to critical issues. There seems to be two key approaches that PM John Key takes to avoiding important social justice issues (i) He Lies and (ii) He demeans those who challenge his position. In the case of Christmas Island, John Key has done both. The New Zealand herald described the interchange as follows:

The heated debate on New Zealanders detained on Christmas Island continued inside the House.
Under questioning by Labour leader Andrew Little, Mr Key went on a furious offensive.
In an angry attack, he said: “Some of the [detainees] are rapists, some of them are child molesters, and some of them are murderers.
“These are the people that the Labour Party are saying are more important to support than New Zealanders who deserve protecting when they come back here.
“Mr Davis, if you want to put yourself on the side of sex offenders, go ahead my son, but we’ll defend New Zealanders.” (NZH November 10,

What exactly happens between the Prime Ministers ears at the moment when he launches into such tirades is unclear.  What is clear is that he is willing to use any form of distasteful and demeaning comment to silence any challenge to his inaction regarding the detention of our people in Christmas Island. The fervour and speed at which John Key referred to Labour MP Kelvin Davis as being on “the side of sex offenders” highlights a serious lack of judgement. I have myself questioned analysis by Kelvin Davis in regards to the impact of colonisation in the area of  Family Violence and Sexual Violence. However, I have found him to remain committed to making a difference and indeed his work with leading Maori working in the field of Family and Sexual violence prevention, such as Russell Smith, has shown that he is willing to listen and learn from those working to make a positive change. The abuse thrown at him by the Prime Minister was insulting and uninformed. As too, were the actions of the Speaker of the House, David Carter.

TV3 reported that events in Parliament when a group of women MPs stood to reveal they are victims and survivors of sexual violence. Their stand was to raise the issue of the impact and danger of the statements by John Key . As many have reported and commented on, it was a courageous stand to take. Seven women across a number of parties stood publicly to highlight that such statements used as a tool of patriarchal silencing should not be tolerated.

TV3 noted:
Today, seven women stood in Parliament to reveal they are victims of sexual violence. Some of them were saying it for the first time.
They stood because Prime Minister John Key had accused them of “backing the rapists” for voicing concerns about the dozens of New Zealanders locked in a detention facility on Christmas Island, facing deportation from Australia for having served a year or more in jail.
In a better world, I’d dream of their actions encouraging a debate, or even prompting the Prime Minister to apologise for glibly using a deeply painful issue to score cheap political points.
It was a chance for our country’s elected representatives to be role models.
Instead the MPs had their mics cut off. They were reprimanded by speaker David Carter. Some were ejected from Parliament. Those that weren’t walked out.

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Read more:

Today Morning Report highlighted that John Key refuses to give any specific details about why people are being held on Christmas Island and in fact his statements are at least flawed and at most more likely to be another series of untruths. In short the Prime Minister lied in order to stop meaningful engagement about the conditions on Christmas Island and then today attempted to minimise his appalling behaviour by stating to Radio New Zealand:
“I am not claiming they’re all bad to the core I am just simply saying there are two sides to the story” (John Key November 12, 2015).

As the challenges to the Prime Ministers statements were voiced by women in Parliament the Speaker evicted new sitting Green Party member Marama Davidson even before she completed her statement to the house. The eviction of Marama Davidson and Poto Williams was reported internationally as follows:

On Wednesday, female members joined together to directly protest Key’s remarks, taking turns sharing their stories and requesting an apology from the prime minister.
It started with Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the Green party.
“As a victim of sexual assault, I take personal offense to the prime minister’s comments and ask that you require him to withdraw and apologize,” she said.
House Speaker David Carter told her that because the prime minister had not spoken Wednesday, he could not ask him to address Turei’s request.
Jan Logie of the Green Party spoke next, asking “as a victim of sexual assault and as an advocate for survivors” that Key’s words be expunged from the record.
Carter cut her off. “What happened yesterday happened yesterday. Yes, collectively it wasn’t addressed well at the time, but time has passed.”
More MPs followed, including Labour’s Poto Williams and Green’s Catherine Delahunty, whose microphone was turned off after she said she was a victim of sexual assault. Carter said the legislators were “flouting the rules” of parliament by claiming to make points of order, and that any who made similar statements would be ordered to leave the House. Despite the warning, female MPs continued to stand. Green MP Marama Davidson was then thrown out, followed by Williams. The Guardian reports at least eight other female MPs, along with four male MPs, then chose to leave the chamber.

The actions of the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the House highlight broader issues of the marginalisation and state imposed violence upon many in this country. The National government have failed to proactively engage with the issues of abuse being faced by many, including many from Aotearoa, in the Australia detention camp on Christmas Island. They also continue to reduce resources and funding to those that are victims and survivors here in Aotearoa. The National government and its Minstry’s such as the Ministry of Social Development have undermined and forced the closure of critical social services, most recently Relationships Aotearoa and Pacific Island Safety Prevention Project in South Auckland.

It has been argued for some time that issues of sexual and domestic violence cannot be addressed seriously without addressing the larger structures of colonialist violence, such as militarism, attacks on immigrants and denial of Indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights, police brutality, the proliferation of prisons, economic neo-colonialism and institutional racism. In order to deal with issues of sexual violence we must also deal with wider structural issues of social injustice and in particular the ways in which cultural, political and gender oppression is embedded within societal structures. What we have seen in the past few days is evidence that this government is not only falling short in ensuring the fundamental human rights of those being detained on Christmas Island, but they are also perpetuating the exact forms of institutional abuse that creates a context where violence is enabled. We should all be deeply disgusted at that.

As a Māori women’s collective, Te Wharepora Hou acknowledge and thank those women who stood to voice their stories, and those in Parliament who stood to support them. Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou.