Flying flags on Waitangi Day

Waitangi – Our National Day

One of the more bizarre sights on Waitangi Day last week was the televised view of a small legion of Transit New Zealand employees lining the girders high on Auckland’s Harbour Bridge to prevent any attempts to raise the tino rangatiratanga flag.

This followed Transit turning down a request from Maori groups for it to be flown on the bridge on Waitangi Day. Transit said approval to raise flags applied only to countries recognised by the government, with their flags flown on their national or independence days.

Transit’s reaction was uptight and nonsensical. As one writer to the local paper pointed out, the flag of the New Zealand America’s Cup team had previously been flown so the policy is applied flexibly when Transit sees fit.

If it’s good enough to fly the flag for a millionaires’ yachting event then the flag which embodies the essence of the second article of New Zealand’s founding document shouldn’t have been a problem.

Even in Australia the symbolism of flying the Aboriginal flag from the Sydney Harbour Bridge has been supported. Not here however.

The government backed up Transit with the Minister of Maori Affairs Parekura Horomia lamely saying the government wouldn’t intervene although they would consider the issue after the event.
It would have been symbolic of the Treaty had Transit flown the Union Jack from one of its twin poles on the bridge and the flag of the Independent Tribes of New Zealand on the other. These were the flags of the original treaty signatories and flying them together would be a potent symbol of partnership.
So why the fuss about a flag? Just what was it that the Transit employees were protecting?
On the face of it it’s a stupid issue for anyone to take seriously except for the fact that somehow this discussion reflects huge pakeha unease about the Treaty and our bi-cultural heritage. The feeling of being under threat from a resurgent Maori nationalism has unsettled pakeha for the past quarter century and continues to do so today.
United Future leader Peter Dunne embodies these feelings of insecurity when he calls for Waitangi Day to be abandoned as our national day in favour of another date for “New Zealand Day”. This would be a cop-out at best. We should not be afraid of conflict, debate or challenges. They are all a necessary part of any societal change and essential to avoid issues festering away out of sight.
Labour and National leaders tried to stay above the fray on the day but they didn’t acquit themselves well. Helen Clark did her best to downplay widespread poverty and John Key patronised low-income families with his hosting of 12-year-old Aroha Ireland at Waitangi, parading her like a trophy in much the same way that Oliver Twist’s benefactor showed him off to his friends.

More importantly the National Party policy Key announced just prior to Waitangi by which the Maori seats in parliament would be abolished in 2014 would represent a leap backwards for New Zealand. It is short-sighted, narrowly focused and fundamentally undemocratic.

At present a party such as the Maori Party has the chance to be represented in parliament through Maori electorates in which Maori vote. If these seats were abolished the Maori Party would have to get 5% of the party vote nationally to gain parliamentary seats. Given that Maori make up around 15% of the population the party would need to get 33% of Maori votes before it could enter parliament. This would be the equivalent of saying that the National Party needed 33% of the pakeha vote before they could be represented in parliament. Clearly a ludicrous situation so why apply it to Maori?

On the one hand it’s reasonable to suggest that all 120 MPs should look out for the interests of Maori but without Maori given the choice this smacks of more paternalism.

The Maori seats may disappear naturally when Maori feel comfortable that they are represented effectively by other parties or parliamentarians. If this happens they will gradually migrate from the Maori roll to the general roll and the number of Maori seats will decrease accordingly. Alternatively if Maori feel unrepresented then they will migrate back to the Maori roll. And why should they not have the choice to do so?

Democracy is sometimes described as the tyranny of the majority over minorities. In New Zealand’s case the Maori seats help mitigate against this.

Waitangi Day is often three steps forward and two back for debate on race and representation. In 2007 it seems there are more steps back than forward.