Pages

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A visit to Waitangi

The flag pole at Waitangi, in front of James Busby's house
(aka the Treaty House)
I'm away in Russell/Kororāreka at the moment to bring in the new year, so we took the chance yesterday to visit the place where our Treaty was signed. I say our Treaty because it is, and shoud be a source of pride for all Kiwis - despite what happened subsequent to its signing. Yesterday's visit emphasised that to me again. It was my third visit to the Treaty grounds and probably the most intriguing in terms of the tour and the reactions of some tourists.

Our tour guide gave the usual speech on te Tiriti and why it was signed, and a fairly prolonged explanation on the meaning of the United Tribes flag, which was stated as being one of New Zealand's two flags. Then came the kicker - questions from the crowd from some Australian tourists on our current flag and the referendum to change it.

The tour guide went in to a prolonged explanation on their view that the current flag - the British Blue Ensign plus southern cross - "wasn't backed by a constitution" and wasn't recognised by a monarch, while the United Tribes flag has a constitution (He Whakaputunga / the Declaration of Independence of 1835) behind it, and was recognised by a monarch (King William IV in 1834). We were then told to avoid arrest or the need for a resource consent from a local council, all we needed to do was state that the flag doesn't have jurisdiction and that the United Tribes flag does.

This clearly confused the tourist, who then asked if when New Zealand gained independence from Britain (in 1907), the current flag had been adopted. At this stage a friend who was on the tour with me jumped in and pointed out the current flag pre-dated Australia's federation (in 1901, being designed by Albert Markham Hastings in 1869 while he was stationed in Sydney). Luckily, the tour guide was aware that New Zealand's current flag pre-dates the Australian federation flag, so it's possible they copied our design, and asked the tourist if that had clarified things. They replied not really.

I'm still not really sure what to make of this. Flag debate aside, the claims about the United Tribes flag and the Declaration of Independence are nothing new, and recently addressed by the Waitangi Tribunal in their first report on the issue. The historical facts the Tribunal went through don't fit the story the tour guide told - the current flag is legally constituted (if you don't think so then you'll probably also claim the New Zealand Government is illegal, another pointless argument made by bush lawyers) and was recogised by a monarch, being King Edward VII, in its progress to becoming New Zealand's national ensign in 1902.

Obviously I'm one who favours a new New Zealand flag that breaks from our colonial past and emphasised geopolitical and social reality that our country is today independent of the United Kingdom (and of course, Australia too). To me, it's a necessary step in nation building. But I'm not going to claim that the current flag is somehow illegitimate or illegal in the process.