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

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.30.17 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.30.26 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.30.33 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.30.44 pm

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

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.30.51 pm

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

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.31.00 pm

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 10.31.17 pm

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.

Author: Te Wharepora Hou

Te Wharepora Hou is a collective of wāhine who are mainly Tāmaki Makaurau based, but we have strong participation from wāhine based elsewhere in Aotearoa and the world. We have come together to ensure a stronger voice for wāhine and are concerned primarily with the wellbeing of whānau, hapū, iwi and all that pertains to Papatūānuku and the sustenance of our people.

One thought on “The Flag Conversation and Issues of Distraction”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: