The flag: politics either way
Posted on 09:34, December 15th, 2009 by Lew
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that every single one of those Māori I’ve heard speaking out against the tino rangatiratanga flag has a tribal axe to grind. Shane Jones, Kingi Taurua, Pita Paraone, Winston Peters — they’re all from the iwi of that group of rangatira who established the United Tribes of New Zealand confederation under Busby in 1835, in the Tai Tokerau. They, naturally enough, want the United Tribes flag flown instead of the one which represents the aspirations of wider Māori. The root of this claim is the belief among those groups that theirs was the ‘state of origin’, as it were — the first actual state in these lands. That’s a complex and disputed claim but regardless, the belief abides, and this sense of primacy is no small part of the reason that so many of this country’s Māori statesmen and women, great thinkers and inspirational leaders, come from the tail of Te Ika a Maui.
They say there’s an ulterior motive in the flying of the tino rangatiratanga flag on the part of the māori party, who have adopted it as their own, and I accept they have a case. They also have a case to argue that the United Tribes flag should be flown — especially at Waitangi Marae (Te Tii), where the choice belongs solely to mana whenua. But let’s not pretend there’s no ulterior political motive on their part: they have every reason to decry the flag as ‘separatist’ and ‘divisive’ in order to fly their own. Not only that, but the motive is no more unanimous among Ngāpuhi than among other Māori — the tino rangatiratanga flag is supported (obviously) by Hone Harawira, and was designed by Hiraina Marsden, the daughter of the Rev. Māori Marsden, one of the most important philosophical figures of that iwi, and a mentor to Shane Jones and many others. So the political motives in play are much more complex than they appear.
As for Winston Peters’ objection that the tino rangatiratanga flag is ‘political’ — was there ever a more ridiculous assertion? The whole purpose of such a flag is to symbolise and propagandise political identity, to provide it focus and expression. The United Tribes flag is no less political than the tino rangatiratanga flag — and so it becomes a matter of picking which symbolism is more appropriate.
On the one hand we have a long historical pedigree, and a flag which represents the early unity of the NZ proto-state and the formal beginnings of collaboration between tangata whenua and tau iwi, but which actually represents only a small subset of the Māori population and whose political cause (to establish a client state sympathetic to the English in their manouvres against the French) was superceded by the Treaty of Waitangi only a few years after its establishment.
On the other, we have a relatively new flag, one whose symbolism and history is exclusively Māori, rather than being part of a wider game between colonial powers; a modern flag representing modern, rather than historical aspirations but which has, to an extent, been hijacked by the radical movement.
For me, it comes down to the process enacted by the government: wisely, instead of deciding by fiat, John Key instructed Māori to decide, and decide they did, with more than 80% of the 1200 submissions in favour of the tino rangatiratanga flag. This is not to side with majoritarianism, but to say that choosing another flag would have been manifest politicking. Better from Key’s perspective to devolve the decision and allow an age-old struggle to re-emerge: he looks statesmanlike, and both his erstwhile political friends and his enemies get bogged down in internecine fighting. I had hoped it wouldn’t happen; and it might yet prove minor. But the issue won’t go away — nor should it.