Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Banner Of Us All

Symbol of Sovereignty: The tino rangatiratanga flag has the virtue of emerging naturally out of our recent history. It flies over the Auckland harbour bridge on Waitangi Day and has become the symbol of that part of the New Zealand nation which yearns to put the dubious legacy of British imperialism behind them.

WHAT IS A FLAG? Like so many of the things that go into the making of a state, flags have their origins in war. Large swathes of cloth bearing simple, easily recognised devices, made it possible for an army’s identity to be determined from a considerable distance. Those who marched beneath these fluttering banners were, accordingly, bound to its fortunes. While their flag flew the soldiers knew there was reason to go on fighting; when it fell, or was hauled down, they knew the battle was lost.
The Prime Minister, John Key, has suggested that the time is right for New Zealanders to consider changing their flag. Mr Key appears to subscribe to the widely held belief that the current design lacks distinction and fails to identify New Zealand as a unique and independent nation of the South Pacific. On 29 January he raised the possibility of holding a referendum on the issue in which the current New Zealand flag is pitted against an alternative of the Government’s choosing. Mr Key’s preferred replacement is the silver fern flag so beloved of All Black supporters.
The first thing to note about the Prime Minister’s suggestion is its utter disdain for any kind of public participation. Mr Key proposes to give the voters just one alternative to the status quo, its design to be decided by himself and his colleagues. End of story.
This is clearly an unsatisfactory (not to say undemocratic) way of handling any change to such an indispensable symbol of our national identity. Indeed, the procedure is so clearly deficient that it raises questions about the amount of thought the Prime Minister has given the subject. The most famous and successful example of the flag-changing process, Canada’s 1965 adoption of its universally admired maple leaf flag, left the final decision to a multi-party parliamentary committee.
In terms of speed and simplicity the Canadian model has much to recommend it. But if New Zealanders are determined to have the final say, then I’d advise adopting the following three stage process. First Stage: a special multi-party parliamentary committee invites public submissions from which it produces a short-list of three alternative designs. Second Stage: a referendum is conducted asking New Zealanders to rank the three alternatives in order of preference. Third Stage: the most preferred design is “run off” against the present New Zealand flag in a final, binding, referendum.
Such a process would almost certainly produce the following three contenders: the tino rangatiratanga or Maori sovereignty flag; Kyle Lockwood’s graceful combination of the silver fern and the southern cross; and the “All Black” flag featuring the silver fern on a sable field.
If the silver fern flag emerged as the most preferred option, I would vote for the existing New Zealand flag. Black has always conferred a palpable sense of power and menace to our national rugby team, but making black the dominant colour of our national flag would be a singularly ill-omened decision. In war, flying a black flag warned one’s enemy that no prisoners would be taken. Much the same bloodthirsty intent became attached to the pirates’ skull and crossbones flag. As the international banner of Anarchism, the black flag is burdened with many negative historical associations. Across the world, black is also recognised as the colour of death and mourning.
Kyle Lockwood's New Zealand flag gracefully incorporates the familiar symbols of Silver Fern and Southern Cross with the red-white-and-blue of the existing New Zealand Ensign.
Combining as it does the two symbols most commonly associated with New Zealand, along with the red, white and blue of the existing flag, it is difficult to fault Kyle Lockwood’s much admired design. It compares very favourably with Canada’s maple leaf flag in terms of both elegance and simplicity and would quite probably gain the latter’s instant and near universal acceptance.
My own preference, however, would be for the tino rangatiratanga flag. As a design, it, too, is a masterful combination of simplicity and elegance. But looking good is by no means all it has going for it.
Designed by Hiraina Marsden, Jan Smith and Linda Munn in 1990, its adaptation of the traditional Maori koru motif and its use of Maoridom’s red, white and black colours has imbued this flag with a primal dynamism, a sense of somehow being “right”, that led to its instant adoption by most of Maoridom as well as many Pakeha.
The tino rangatiratanga flag also has the virtue of having emerged, naturally, out of our recent history. It now flies over the Auckland harbour bridge on Waitangi Day and has become the symbol of that part of the New Zealand nation which yearns to put the dubious legacy of British imperialism behind them.
It is difficult to imagine a more potent gesture of Pakeha goodwill, or of this nation’s determination to unequivocally proclaim its bi-cultural identity, than voting to adopt the flag of Maori sovereignty as the banner of us all.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, February 11, 2014.


Anonymous said...

Given Key's propensity to smile and wave at the great unwashed public and their opinions, he is better kept out of the loop.

The armed forces are called to defend or die beneath our jack. To present and past servicemen and women alone should belong the choice.

But as a white kiwi civilian, my choice is one you haven't considered worthy - the flag of the United Tribes. It was a truly collaborative effort between Maori, early NZ'rs, and a representative of the Royal Navy.
And it has already been gazetted.

"On 20th March 1834, three designs put to 25 northern Maori chiefs at Waitangi by James Busby and Captain Lambert of the Man-of-war HMS Alligator. By a vote of 12-10-3, the design now widely known as the United Tribes Flag was chosen. British, American, and French representatives witnessed the ceremony, which included a 21-gun salute from the Alligator"


Anonymous said...

The "service people fought and died under the flag" argument is specious. They fought under the flag at the behest of their government (thus, notionally, their people). They have no greater say in it than anyone else.

Barry said...

NZ is a white Western country,not a maori country, so I say no to the tino thing.

I would like us to keep our present flag.

Olwyn said...

I am with Mick - I would vote for the United Tribes flag. It is the loveliest, and the one that I could imagine inspiring devotion. The silver fern is by far the worst, for the reasons you outline.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Personally, I rather like the one by Friedrich Hundertwasser. But if we still have a national government in power perhaps it should be black with a skull and crossbones :-).

Victor said...

A few thoughts on flags:

Firstly, avoid large areas of black. It’s the colour of funerals, fascism, piracy on the high seas and various forms of Islamist militancy.

Worst of all might be a black flag with a diagonal silver design, which would actually bear some slight resemblance to Himmler’s SS banners or Mosley’s ‘double flash’.

Many New Zealanders might think such a flag represented their sporting prowess and fame. But most people in most countries wouldn’t get that connection unless it was pointed out to them. If it has to be pointed out, you might as well not bother. The harm will already have been done.

And, even if you discount the unfortunate political and cultural connotations of a largely black flag, the fact remains that black is a dull and depressing colour. Just imagine our drab black ensign fluttering in the breeze midst the riot of colour of the rest of the world’s flags outside the UN building in New York. ‘Yuck’ would seem to be an appropriate comment.

Secondly, avoid the red/white/blue combination. There are just too many other countries with this combination. The same would be true (albeit to a lesser extent) of red/white/ green.

Thirdly, avoid too many colours. The new South African flag gets away with it…..but only just. It might not work out that well, next time around.

Fourthly, don’t clutter the flag. If you feel the need to include an iconic symbol to balance some other iconic symbol, it means you have two symbols too many. For that reason, I regard Kyle Lockwood's design as a non-starter. And there are many attempted designs that a far more cluttered than his.

Fifthly, there’s a case for keeping the existing flag, at least until a decent interval after the passing away of the World War Two generation. But, once you decide to give it up, it serves no purpose to try hanging on to reminders of it. That’s precisely what Canada didn’t do. Again, that's an argument against the Lockwood design.

Sixthly, go for a bold, simple-to-draw design. A five year old with three or (at most) four crayons should be able to reproduce it . Hard to reproduce and inherently cluttery symbols like a fern-leaf should be an absolute no-no.

Seventhly, choose colours that say something about New Zealand and about the sense of homecoming, combined with wonder at the nurturing beauty of our environment, that hits us (yes, even immigrant Poms such as myself) when we arrive back from overseas. Deep azure, heavy greens, white and the gold of the sun come to mind. To my mind, we should choose three of these four.

.....more to come

Victor said...

Concluding thoughts on flags:

Eighthly, there’s nothing inherently wrong with simple tricolour designs, be they vertical or horizontal. That’s why they’re so popular. But we can probably do better, particularly if we use some form of Koru design. Strangely, Hundertwasser botched it. But he was on the right track.

Ninethly, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag ticks a lot of boxes as far as overall shape is concerned. But the colours are a bit too strident and certainly not reminiscent of our verdant, nurturing environment. Moreover, last time we were involved in a major war, it was with a highly unpleasant tyranny that flew a stridently red, white and black flag. This might or might not be a consideration, possibly depending on your age.

Tenthly, if we want to include some reference to our British connection (and I frankly think that’s unnecessary), we should remember that this connection has primarily been not with the British state (as represented by the ‘Union Flag’) but with the Crown.

Therefore, we might conceivably want to fit a small British-style crown into the version of the flag flown on state occasions. And, if we subsequently opted for a republic, the crown could be dropped. This is what happened with the Italian Tricolore, which used to include the arms of the reigning House of Savoy on its central stripe.

Eleventhly, the flag of the United Tribes might not be an early nineteenth century British flag. But it's still an early nineteenth century "British type" flag and aesthetically reminiscent of a now passed Imperial epoch.
Moreover, its cruciform shape implies (intentionally or otherwise) a connection with Christianity that might not be deemed wholly appropriate in the flag of a secular nation.

Wayne Mapp said...

Chris, a very good article. Two points:

First in terms of procedure, a single two part referendum is probably sufficient. The first part asks "do you support a change of flag", yes or no. The second part gives two options for a new flag. Everyone participates in both parts, but clearly the second part is only relevant if the answer to the first part is "yes". Admittedly it has the disadvantage of only having two new options,presumably chosen by an expert panel and surveys. However it does mean it could be done at the election, which guarantees high voter participation.

My second point is my own preference for a design. I like Kyle Lockwood's design, but it is too busy. No need to have the Southern Cross, just the Silver Fern corner to corner, but definitely in the red, white and blue that he uses. Proud, distinctive and with the level of impact of the Canadian flag.

Lord Francis Sausage said...

The red flag was apparently the original flag of no quarter. Pirates would run up the classic black jolly roger flag to signal their intent and give their prey the opportunity to surrender. Otherwise, the red flag went up and things got serious. Or so the story goes.

Unknown said...

Chris; are you serious?

Or living in la la land?

There is NO WAY the majority of New Zealanders will support a flag that represents Maori supremacy and about 3% of the population = those who voted for the Maori and Mana parties.

(and for those obsessed about colour, the Nazi flag was red, black and white.)

Mike said...

Changing a national flag is a big deal.

I think it would 'take' best as part of some wider political or social reform, about which there is broad consensus. Changing the flag then naturally symbolises societal change.

There also seems to be a belief in some quarters that changing the flag will engender new patriotic spirit/pride: that it might actually help catalyze change. (This seems to be part of the NZ Republicans argument?) But that seems to me like the tail wagging the dog.

Unfortunately, I think NZ is much too divided at the moment about 'NZ' stands for - and therefore what the flag might symbolise - to make a good decision. Where is the groundswell?

Victor said...

Wayne Mapp

The problem with your proposed procedure is that some of us might be in favour of a change but still prefer the current flag to the choice of the new ones on offer. How do you square that circle?

And why do you want yet another red, white and blue flag, just like the UK, the US, France, the Netherlands, Chile, Cuba, Australia, Russia(admittedly a paler blue), Serbia, Norway, Iceland, Thailand, the Czech Republic, the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, Costa Rica, Samoa, Panama and the Republic of China (Taiwan) amongst so many others.

Canada didn't achieve its distinctive and beautiful flag through such tunnel vision. Instead, it seems to have chosen a unique red, reminiscent of its woodlands in the magnificent North American "fall".

We too have been blessed by nature and should find some way to reflect this in the colours of our flag.

And don't kid yourself that a fern leaf is as easily drawable as a maple leaf. Try doing it and you'll see what I mean. Drawability should be a condition of inclusion.

Jan said...

Let's not have a picture of a leaf - it's been done! Besides, as the fern thing has become so connected with sport we would be in danger of being seen as believing that that is the only thing of value here.
The tino rangatira flag is striking, unique and has wonderful symbolism which can be adopted with pride by all of us. Its values would be something to aspire to.
It's a very interesting discussion, actually, because, far more than just a flag, it's about how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to perceive us. The term of this current government and its globalization policies seem to be bringing this to a head. Do we want to 'market' ourselves in a once-over-lightly fashion, as I think would be the case if we adopted the fern, or do we want something that symbolizes depth and meaning in our own unique way? We can be so much more than the superficial spin that is our lot at present.

Robert M said...

Black is the color we race under in Rugby and Atheletics. Black was the color Quax, Snell, Lovelock and Walker wore and the allblacks always and it characterised the austere, controlled ruthless way they played. Once Fred Allen became coach and selected Laidlaw and began playing the running game, we were always likely to loose as we did against the Boks in 70 and 76 and Lions in 71 and almost in 77.
Guerilla the scull and crossbones in the flag the Sea Shepherd boats fly, notably the Steve Irwin, currently r & r in Wellington . The Steve Irwin is actually a former Scottish fisheries protection vessel, 'Jura' which is actually the prototype for the RN Island class Mk1 OPVs designed by David Brown as a prototype WW3 corvette. By giving Sea Shepherd safe harbour and protesting about the Japanese coastguard entering our waters to chase them we are is a sense alligning ourselves with China. Flag choices indicate political leanings. Personally I prefer adopting the Canadian model- three vertical slabs- black on the outside, a white centre with a black fern. The other choice would be to adopt the Jack, wholesale with just a white rectangular insert with a black fern in the centre of the corner.
It would reflect the reality we've never really been an independent nation and most of the proposed flags with all the color and too many features would just be another indication were becoming third world, or are already in parts.

Davo Stevens said...

How much of this is another of Johnny's diversion away from our Spooks destroying files?

Barry said...

The Tino flag is a flag of protest and racial separation - not interested.

Jan said...

This is an explanation of the symbolism of the tino rangatira flag:
"BLACK represents Te Korekore (the realm of potential being). It thus symbolises the long darkness from which the earth emerged, as well as signifying Rangi - the heavens, a male, formless, floating, passive force.
RED represents Te Whei Ao (coming into being). It symbolises Papatuanuku, the earth-mother, the sustainer of all living things, and thus both the land and active forces.
WHITE represents Te Ao Marama (the realm of being and light). It symbolises the physical world, purity, harmony, enlightenment and balance.
The spiral-like KORU, symbolic of a curling fern frond, represents the unfolding of new life, hope for the future and the process of renewal".
What's racial separation got to do with it, Barry? Do you understand the meaning of biculturalism or multiculturalism, even? They means different cultures living side by side in harmony, not a 'melting pot' society where the smaller cultures get swallowed up by the dominant one

Jigsaw said...

Re the Tino Rangatiratanga flag-you MUST be joking! With all the political overtones that carries I doubt that you would even manage 5% public approval. The Kyle Lockwood flag is easily the best.

Barry said...

Hello Jan

I'm the Barry who commented on 11 Feb, not the one who commented at 08.21 today - but I agree with him about protest and separation.

I think there is now an ugliness associated with that tino thing.

Paulus said...

The question of Key raising the subject of the flag now raises a point. It is said that a remit from Labour HQ in Wellington was prepared to be raised at the next Conference on this, as part of the Election Year strategy, but may have been accidentally leaked into the ether and picked up in the Parliamentary stratosphere so Key decided to pre-empt it by releasing the subject now.

Jan said...

It's a sad old place, this country, isn't it - full of people who can't see past their own noses - tragic really, it has so much potential

Victor said...


Thank you for explaining the symbolism of the tino rangatiratanga flag.

I think, however, that your explanation should rule it out of consideration as a flag for the whole nation.

We are a secular country, albeit one that is broadly respectful of the beliefs of religious communities.

As a secular nation, we should no more seek to enshrine the 'Pagan' religious imagery of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag than we should the (perhaps inadvertent)Christian iconography of the United Tribes flag.

We need a much more inclusive design that will draw on the loyalties of all our citizens without asking any of them to subscribe to a cosmology that is not theirs and that they might well find offends their own beliefs.

May I add that the flag is a very successful work of art. It's strident colours and sense of movement and dynamism make it a very effective street banner.

But the same was true of the red, white and black Nazi flag, to which it bears a very loose but still troubling resemblance.

Do we really want a national flag that resembles, however slightly, that of the truly evil regime that so many thousands of New Zealanders died combatting? I think not.

Jan said...

Oh goodness, Victor, not all symbolism is pagan, whatever that might mean in your terms - a symbol is just something that has been imbued with meaning by the creator(s) which can be invested with many shades of meaning depending on your own convictions.
I suggest you do some research on the swastika, for example. It is a very ancient symbol still in wide use in some cultures, and the three-legged version of it is the national emblem of the country of my forefathers; the Isle of Mann. it can be interpreted, just like the symbols of the tino rangatira flag, in whatever way has meaning for you.

markus said...

Victor and Wayne Mapp are spot on when it comes to the Kyle Lockwood design. If we're going to move to a new flag then for godsakes let's not end up in some ludicrous half-way house where we can't quite bring ourselves to entirely get rid of the old one.

Put your hand over the southern cross and Lockwood's design looks half decent (though perhaps just slightly over the top). Take your hand away and it's little more than a dog's dinner.

The Canadians had the courage to go for something entirely new and bold, with the central motif right bang in the middle. Let's show the same backbone.

And don't rule out the possibility of new bold, simple, stunning designs emerging in the near future. As someone who very nearly took up graphic design as a career back in the 80s, I've got one or two cunning little gems up my sleeve as we speak.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"We need a much more inclusive design that will draw on the loyalties of all our citizens without asking any of them to subscribe to a cosmology that is not theirs and that they might well find offends their own beliefs."

Good luck with that :-). Those who give a ship seem to give a wholehearted shit about this sort of thing. The union jack of course offends the Irish, racists and Blimps don't like the Tino Rangatira flag, atheists don't like crosses. The vast majority of the population I suspect doesn't give a shit. Which is very sensible.

Victor said...


Of course not all symbolism is Pagan. If it was, all flags would be Pagan and this discussion would be meaningless.

By 'Pagan', I mean a traditional or traditionally-based cosmology that is neither scientific nor monotheistic.

I have no specific objection to Paganism. But that's because I'm a reasonably tolerant individual and am happy for people to choose whatever cosmology they prefer, just so long as it doesn't lead them to want to blow me up.

But, obviously, I really couldn't feel a sense of loyalty to a flag that's intended to represent a cosmology that is not mine.

And, yes, I'm aware of the history of the Swastika. But, obviously, any use of this symbol in a new flag would need to take account of its most recent history. I can't imagine that you would urge its use in our putative new national flag.

I also, of course, accept that reproducing the Nazi banner was the last thing in the mind of you and your colleagues when you came up with the tino rangatiratanga flag.

But I have to tell you that my first sighting of it made my Central European blood run cold. I actually thought it was the sort of flag that Neo-Nazi organisations use in countries where the Swastika is banned.

Subjective?: Yes

But, as you point out, "a symbol is just something that has been imbued with meaning by the creator(s) which can be invested with many shades of meaning depending on your own convictions".

So let's find a flag which (the inevitable aesthetic disagreements apart) is unlikely to be invested with negative emotions, either here in New Zealand or when flown overseas. And, if we can't do that, then let's stay with what we have.

Victor said...

Guerilla Surgeon

I appreciate your scepticism.

But there is one thing that unites just about everyone in this country and that's appreciation of the beauty of our natural environment.

It unites rich and poor, young and old, right and left, Maori and Pakeha, NZ born and recent immigrant, sporty and couch potato, religious and secular.

So why not a flag which celebrates this environment?

Moreover, if the first virtue of a flag is to provide a symbol for a country's citizens, an important secondary virtue is to represent it to foreigners, ideally in economically advantageous ways (e.g. encouraging tourism and selling produce).

An emphasis on our natural environment does precisely this.

I found the following suggestion on the web and think it heads broadly in the right direction, although there's room for developement:


I agree that those who don't concern themselves with this topic are probably more sensible than those who do. Put my obsessiveness down to my inherent triviality.

Barry said...

I think our present flag is a good one. I say just keep it.

Anonymous said...

The Tino Rangatiratanga flag is a striking design and visually I like it. But Chris does not address the elephant in the room which is that that flag already has a meaning and a purpose. It stands, self evidently, as the symbol of "tino rangiatiratanga" ie the idea that Maori did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown, and therefore to the NZ Government as it's successor. So unless New Zealanders accept that proposition ie that the current NZ government is illegally usurping the sovereignty of Maori - how can they pledge allege nice to the symbol of that proposition? And if the government does take that symbol over without conceding its ilegimacy, does not that mean those who support Tino rangatiratanga will then need to find a new flag? (They may have a Treaty claim for expropriation of their intellectual property in the existing flag, unless they have agreed to the take over. )

Chris - care to comment?

Alan said...

A flag is a rag of identity. It gains mana with history. Its symbols as well as colours matter.

But it needs to be the flag for all.

The tino rangatiratanga flag is a beautiful flag but fails the test. It is now sadly too closely associated with a noisy racist minority of Treaty misinterpreters


Guerilla Surgeon said...

You don't need the Treaty to claim for usurpation of intellectual property/trademark. Just lots of cash. The fact that you made this a spurious Treaty issue shows where the racism lies

Jigsaw said...

Well said Alan!

carbonguilty said...

Clearly we have not yet seen a flag design we can agee on so forget it until we do. It cannot be political so that rules out race based designs. Nature based ones are probably the only starters.