The great New Zealand flag debate rages on
Kiwis are getting steamed up over their flag, and the debate is taking the old rag through the dirty washing, through the wringer, and out to dry where the winds of change will no doubt blow hot and cold.
New Zealanders never were a great flag-waving nation in the same tradition as the British, Canadians and Americans. Few houses, business premises, or government offices are ever seen to fly the New Zealand flag. For more than a century Kiwis preferred to display a national symbol like the native kiwi bird or the silver fern.
To many people this raises a question regarding the level of patriotism in the land Downunder. But that is not the problem. Kiwis are proud of their country and sing its praises whenever and wherever they travel and regularly take with them symbols and emblems and Kiwi souvenirs to hand out. They just don’t fill their luggage with flags.
To understand the reason for this ‘flagapathy’ we need to look back to the roots of New Zealand as a nation.
The first New Zealanders were Polynesians (Maori) who settled the coastal areas in the thirteenth century and struggled to survive and increase their numbers until the fifteenth century when they came to terms with their new cooler environment. They had no time or inclination toward flag waving. Surviving was a full-time business.
|The flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand|
The first flags seen Downunder were flown from visiting ships from 1642 onward and they were mostly Dutch, British, French and American. Small European settlements based on whaling, sealing and timber began to appear around the New Zealand coast from the early 1800s. The Maori who had evolved as a race without any contact with the outside world, began to understand many things European, including the significance of flags.
Then in 1833 along came James Busby, sent by the authorities in New South Wales, to be a peace-keeper without guns and given the title of British Resident. Busby achieved very little, but he did give the Maori New Zealand’s first flag, the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. Never mind that the United Tribes never met to pass any laws and faded quickly from the scene, New Zealand had its very own flag.
|The British Union Jack from 1840-1902|
Busby’s term in office was a failure from the start and between Sydney and London the colonial authorities wanted something more effective to protect the interests of both Maori and settlers in New Zealand. It was decided to send a deputy-governor from Sydney in the form of Captain William Hobson. Hobson was more business-like, but only just. He drafted the Treaty of Waitangi, (without any legal training), called some Maori chiefs to a meeting at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, they all appended their marks to the document, and the Royal Navy hauled the British Union Jack up a flagpole. New Zealand had another flag.
Hobson did the best that he could, under the circumstances, to govern New Zealand in the best interests of all. But the treaty failed to live up to its expectations and pretty soon the new colony was at war. By the 1870s the dust had settled, for the time being, and New Zealand was granted limited self-government. Meanwhile the British flag was the New Zealand flag.
|The New Zealand flag from 1902 - 2015|
At the start of the twentieth century the British government started feeding out more slack to the colonials Downunder. Australia became fully self-governing in 1901, but New Zealand declined to join the new Australian nation as one of its states. The British government suggested that it was no longer appropriate for New Zealand to use the British flag and a compromise was reached in 1902 whereby the New Zealand Parliament passed the Ensign and Code Signals Act (approving a new flag with a smaller Union Jack with four stars added) and this was given the Royal Assent by King Edward VII on 24 March 1902. New Zealand had its third flag, a flag that was never voted on by the electors in a referendum.
In 1907 the British government pushed New Zealand a little further aside with the passage of the Statute of Westminster, an act to grant New Zealand independence. But New Zealand resisted independence, principally to preserve the New Zealand-United Kingdom trade links for farm products, and also because a majority of white New Zealanders were British-born. Later, during World War II, the British government had a monopoly on food supplies and food rationing was implemented in New Zealand so that farm produce could be diverted to the war effort.
|One of more than 2,000 designs for New Zealand's|
The New Zealand Parliament finally ratified the Statute of Westminster in 1947 and New Zealand became fully independent, but the flag didn’t change, and the food rationing continued for several years more. Then push came to shove and the British government announced that it would abandon its traditional trade partners and join the European Economic Community (now the European Union), and it was only due to the tenacity of people like Trade Minister Jack Marshall, that New Zealand was able to gain some concessions for a time.
The constitutional change in 1947 was by far the most significant constitutional change in the nation’s history, but it went virtually unnoticed and has never been celebrated as an Independence Day. That is something that this writer finds really bizarre, because as a consequence many Kiwis don’t even understand that their country is independent. Part of that misunderstanding must be due to our reluctance to adopt a New Zealand flag instead of clinging to a watered-down British flag that was thrust on us in the first place.
There have been many organised attempts to change the flag since that pivotal day in 1947 (26 September), but New Zealand governments, until now, have resisted. Now the Key Government has promised two referendums on the question. For the first time New Zealanders, party politics aside, have a chance to vote for their very own uniquely New Zealand flag, and even more important to reaffirm and re-state New Zealand’s sovereign independence as a nation.