‘Flag debate’ – Still an expensive distraction

hopkinson nz flag burns hopkinson

Paul Hopkinson burns NZ flag in opposition to military occupations, 2004.

By Ian Anderson, Fightback.

It’s not news that New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has arbitrarily announced a ‘flag debate,’ consisting of two referenda in November-December 2015 and March 2016. Or rather, the ‘flag debate’ is news; reports circulate daily on the latest developments. However, in all the debate about which design is best, or why certain designs were picked and not others, the debate about why this process is happening has largely been left behind.

Critics of the process come from a range of perspectives. Some defend the existing flag, featuring the Union Jack. The Union Jack has also been termed the ‘Butcher’s Apron’ – covered in blood as it waved over a bloody process of global colonisation (including in Aotearoa / New Zealand) which has only recently ebbed.

One conspiracy theory, circulated widely on social media, holds that changing the flag would change New Zealand’s constitutional relationship with the British Crown, laying the basis for the secretly negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). This theory invokes terms like “due authority,” a term which has no legal constitutional meaning. Proponents of the theory hold that the TPPA is an attack on sovereignty. This has an element of truth to it – transport giant Veolia is currently suing the Egyptian government under a similar trade agreement, for raising the minimum wage. However, sovereignty of this kind, the chance of justice and self-determination, rests with the people. The Crown is no defender of popular sovereignty. The forces that imposed capitalism by force will not defend against its excesses. In any case, most flags of the British Commonwealth do not have a Union Jack – the flag design does nothing to alter our constitutional status.

If the flag design were as important to New Zealand capitalism as the TPPA, Key and National would not offer this level of democratic oversight – compare two expensive referenda with secret negotiations. Granted, the ‘democratic’ process is arbitrary and more than a little corporate. Asking for a preferred alternative before asking if voters want to change the flag is manipulative and unnecessary. Key’s obvious preference for the corporate Silver Fern symbol was cemented by a corporate panel, with 3 out of 4 finalists featuring the Silver Fern.

However, it didn’t take much of a fight for National to add the popular Red Peak design to the list of finalists. After a petition with 34,000 signatures and some parliamentary rumblings, Key backed down expressing democratic sentiments:

“I don’t want to be the one that stands in people’s way of having a choice. If people want me to alter the process, I’ll be happy to alter the process – I would have preferred to stick to the one the officials wanted, but you know.”

Compare this with the TPPA, which is opposed by trade unions, criticised by local councils and parliamentary opposition (albeit in a tokenistic way – considering Labour initiated the process), by tens of thousands mobilising in the streets nationwide – and Key has dismissed this opposition as ‘misinformed.’ Popular input on trade deals would much more fundamentally undermine Key’s power base than popular input on an isolated symbol.

The problem with the ‘flag debate’ is precisely that it doesn’t have anything to do with our constitutional status. Te Tiriti will continue to be dishonoured in favour of the English Treaty, a document intended to ensure Crown sovereignty and a stable basis for capitalism. Governments will continue to rush for ‘settlement,’ while the previous settlements haven’t even begun to address the historical violence that has impoverished indigenous communities. Successive Labour and National governments will continue to entrench integration with ‘free trade’ and US-led military occupations. The flag design, on its own, makes little difference.

In fact, the incorporation of the Red Peak, by some degree of ‘popular demand,’ can be considered a kind of victory for Key. Opponents of the process previously called it a $26 million dollar distraction, with public money that could be better spend on feeding or housing people. Now, a particular design has attracted the support of Key’s critics (among others). This is an ironic success for Key’s arbitrarily announced nation-building process. If Red Peak succeeds, the symbol used to justify troops in Syria and Iraq, used as a brand for international trade, will better represent progressive aspirations.

In a widely circulated blog entry entitled ‘Why I Support the Red Peak Flag,” Oxford philosophy professor Josh Parsons (who once graded every flag in the world) articulated this desire:

“New Zealand needs a flag that represents the bicultural nature of our society (never mind whether biculturalism or multiculturalism is more desirable); that reflects the historic contract between Māori and Pakeha that founded our society (whether just or unjust); that represents the unique geography and land-forms that have played an important part in our history and shared culture. It also needs a flag that is not revolutionary, but shows continuity with the past; that is independent of any sports code, and most important of all, is simple, iconic, and unique.”

Parsons’ phrase “whether just or unjust,” perhaps accidentally, echoes the old slogan “my country, whether right or wrong, but my country.” Parsons articulates a form of liberal patriotism, founded on the myth of reconciliation between settlers and indigenous people. Many on social media have similarly expressed a preference for the tino rangatiratanga flag, which represents the struggle for Māori sovereignty. While these intentions are probably noble, there is one fundamental problem – ‘we’ haven’t earned such a flag. In lieu of justice for indigenous and oppressed people, a bicultural flag would represent another kind of rebranding for capitalism, colonisation and imperialism. Reconciliation is impossible without justice

A serious movement for constitutional transformation could challenge this historical, continuing injustice. This movement may demand land redistribution, rather than paltry financial settlements for corporatised iwi; may demand a relationship of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, with resources, rather than exploitation; may demand a true partnership between tau iwi and tangata whenua, collective self-determination, the end of domination by financial elites (including the unelected Brown Table). Fightback also advocates that such a movement should articulate an alternative kind of internationalism – on the basis of solidarity and mutual aid, rather than economic competition. Recent popular sentiments supporting Syrian refugees represent this possibility of an alternative internationalism.

While the movement for constitutional justice occasionally explodes from the potential into the concrete; the 1975 Māori Land March; the re-occupation of Bastion Point (supported by a trade union green ban); hikoi against the Foreshore and Seabed legislation, against asset sales and the TPPA; this is an interrupted, discontinuous process. In the words of Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin, “the history of the oppressed is a discontinuum.” Radical organisations support and prepare for these outbursts of historical possibility, which offer far more than a rebrand for ‘Team New Zealand.’ A movement for constitutional transformation may demand a flag change, but this would have to be connected to further-reaching demands for justice and resources. Without these more far-reaching changes, a better design for our national flag amounts to rebranding injustice. The ‘flag debate’ remains an expensive distraction.

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