Stick in the mud

By chance, this last week, as the final flag ballots were being posted back, the new governor general of New Zealand was appointed. Her name is Dame Patsy Reddy, and she’ll no doubt do a very fine job as the “personal representative” of the New Zealand head of state, Elizabeth II. That position, albeit most days of the week a ceremonial one, was simply announced by the prime minister. There was no show of hands in parliament, let alone a popular vote. And so a flag with Britain looking down on us is just about what we deserve.

Toby Manhire, in the Guardian

I voted for the old flag.

Probably you could find out a lot about what happened in this flag debate if you asked people this kind of question: “when you voted did you vote for a flag or against a flag? Discuss.”  So even though Cathy and I voted the same way I think that I voted for the old flag and she voted against the new one.  Voting against the proposed flag could be done for any number of reasons from not actually liking the proposed new flag through to wanting to say “stuff you” to John Key, or the process, or the expense.  At various times I have felt many of those things myself and thought that I was going to be voting against the proposed flag.

But I didn’t.

All the reasons I listed above for voting against the new flag didn’t have staying power with me.  I didn’t really like the design of the proposed flag, but then I don’t like the current one either.  I have completely lost interest in saying “stuff you” to John Key because John Key is not some kind of left wing pinata but an intelligent, capable and very popular democratically elected leader.  If the opposition want him not to be the leader then they should be a more effective opposition.  The expense?  Sure, but the government spends billions of dollars a year and if I looked at each item of that spending I’m sure I could personally object to some of it as a waste of money.  It’s pretty subjective what a “waste of money” is in the end.  The process was sound.  If I wanted to know one thing it would be how on earth they selected such a boring and narrow final four (plus one).  I think that this stage in the process was what killed the interest of most people.  Andrew Little’s idea that the debate “divided New Zealand” is another reason Andrew Little is working out badly for Labour.  The Springbok Tour divided New Zealand; the flag “debate” got to the level of backyard banter I think, but nowhere near “divisive debate”.

How do I explain to myself voting for the status quo?  I think that it boils down to being fond of historical continuities even though those continuities have plenty of holes that can be picked in them.  For example, when I think of my ancestors arriving in New Zealand in 1851 and 1852 I need to remind myself that the flag we have now didn’t exist then and wouldn’t exist for around another fifty years, and when I think about the creation of that flag – for the Boer war, and probably as a kind of vanity project for another prime minister (Richard Seddon) – well, it doesn’t exactly inspire loyalty.  On the other hand, one hundred and fifteen years is a good run for any symbol in a country with only a thin top soil of European history.

I also think the current flag is historically honest.  It says more about us than we might care to admit.  It says that we are deeply indebted to England for who we are (and I know how loaded the word “we” is when you are talking about 4 million people).  The flag reminds us that the British signed a deal with Maori called the Treaty of Waitangi, and every time there is a treaty settlement it is between the Crown and iwi.  It also reminds us that we were part of an empire once and that other countries were too, and our flags similarity to other flags tells a story about that.  It’s also part of a story that includes feeling obliged to send thousands of men off to their deaths in two world wars.  I don’t see anything, if I am honest, that tells me “we” are really a totally different independent country now from that country that was so indebted to England.

To me, then, the Union Jack represents one of the most important elements in the story of New Zealand.  It is an element that represents all kinds of things including “our” institutions, sports, attitudes, (it’s a long list), as well as “our” obligations to iwi, and the land wars, and trade with Britain, and world wars, and the EEC (it’s another long list).  Each one of those things can be good or bad representing your love or hate of rugby for example, or your feelings about treaty processes.  The Union Jack works as a symbol of colonial oppression and as a symbol of connection to the motherland.  It is very potent in a way that a fern is not.

Huston Smith wrote a very fine book about the world’s religions and he said that it was common for indigenous religions to walk backwards into the future; that the present was always carried out with reference to the past and the ancestors there.  It is a beautiful image and one that resonates in me more and more.  When I think of my father, or my Gran, or my friend, I like to think that when I talk to them we can talk about a few things that haven’t changed since they died in a world that always seems to be changing.  That we can at least have a common language on some things; that the whole of the New Zealand they knew has not become totally unrecognisable to them.  Even if they would have voted for change, we at least can still roll our eyes over the flag and the anthem and the black jersey.  And yes I know that this doesn’t work; that I don’t wish that all aspects of New Zealand’s past were caught in amber.  My father died in 1978 and I’m not sorry that attitudes to gender equality, and Maori, and homosexuality (for example) have changed since then.  My stance is not logical.  It’s personal.

I suppose I should thank John Key.  Having spent 42 years deriding our flag I have now developed some kind of understanding of it thanks to this whole process.  I’d be happy to change it one day, but for now  we have this; our honest, ambiguous symbol of both who “we” are and are not, and who “we” do and do not want to be which nothing, at the moment, captures more than this blimin thing.




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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō