Antipodean Referenda Revisited: here to there to everywhere and back to Union Square

From here to there to everywhere
And back to Union Square
Where do I get some sleep? – Bic Runga, “Get Some Sleep”

 

In August 2014 I presented a paper at a conference in Stirling, Scotland called “Antipodean Referenda”. There were only a few weeks to go before the historic referendum on Scotland’s independence and the atmosphere at the event was fantastic, full of lively debate but respectful on both sides. It really was a great time to be a researcher in Scotland. The topic of my talk was that independence referendum and the referendum that had just been announced would take place in my own home country, New Zealand, as to whether or not we would keep our current flag. I presented my talk with the all the enthusiasm of the moment. I’d been studying post-colonial literature for years, and the collision of these two votes on the motorway of history was something I found fascinating. Were these the final nails in the colonial coffin? Was Dave Dobbyn right in his beautiful song for refugees, “Welcome Home”, to say that ‘out here on the edge, the Empire is fading by the day?’

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The still-current NZ flag (left) and the rejected Kyle Lockwood design (right)

There was naturally a personal element to both of these debates as well. My own peculiar family history has followed the aftereffects of Empire, blowing us from England and Scotland to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and Canada, before I ended up the only New Zealand-born person in my family in 1990. So inevitably I see these issues in an international context, and hope, probably naively, that votes like this will have positive international reverberations. And so I concluded my talk with the words: ‘Scotland must appreciate that it is not just Scotland who’s fate is in the hands of the voters come September. Just as New Zealand must appreciate that far more than a flag may pass into history when they go to the polls shortly afterwards.’

Commonwealth-Flags

Today is March 24th 2016. Had Scotland voted in favour of independence, instead of the 55% in favour of the Union, today would have been Scotland’s independence day. Today is March 24th 2016, and I woke to the news that 56% of the New Zealand electorate had voted to retain the current flag, Union Jack and all. I’d appreciate the poetry of that if I wasn’t so disappointed.

In the case of both votes, I fell into the trap of believing that the prevailing opinion on my social media pages was reflective of the vote itself. While this led to a devastating let-down in September 2014, I was pleasantly surprised by how close the margin was in the NZ flag debate. The majority of my friends and family were in favour of keeping the flag, which of course I respect. The main argument is generally that our dear leader (of whom I am most definitely not a fan) had thrust this on the public, along with its heavy price tag, and all out of self-interest. Now I don’t actually have an issue with this argument. I certainly agree that there was something horribly in character about the use of something shiny and cosmetic to distract us all on the part of John Key and his National Party. It’s just that for me this debate didn’t really have anything to do with John Key.

John Key and Queen Elizabeth II hanging out
John Key and Queen Elizabeth II hanging out

It was frustrating in the case of both the independence referendum and the flag referendum, to see what I feel are much more crucial questions overshadowed in mainstream debate by party politics. What could have been a really important and internationally significant discussion about our relationship to Empire became far more about the cost of a process it was already too late to change. New Zealand currently sits in a strange constitutional set up that means our head of state is a 90 year old woman who has only stepped onto our shores 10 times in the 63 years she has held that position. This was a vote on removing the very image of that monarchy – that colonisation of Aotearoa – from our national flag. Why then was this barely addressed? This morning I read an article by British journalist Andrew Roberts that included the following phrase: ‘the people of New Zealand have given Her Majesty the Queen a better 90th birthday present next month than anyone could have possibly devised, showing that they still value their connection with the United Kingdom and our long shared past.’ I’ll admit I found that one particularly difficult to stomach. Partly because it seems to me – admittedly based on following the debate largely from afar – that what we’ve really voted for is not liking John Key, or not liking how he’s gone about introducing this process. Fair enough – I agree! But that’s not what I felt this vote should have been about.

Because how long will it be before we get this chance again? If Britain votes to leave the EU in yet another referendum I get to be nervous about, the majority of political commentators seem to agree that revisiting Scottish independence will be unavoidable. So what’s the plan if all the blue bits in the back of the Union Jack disappear? Spend another $26 million?

The similarity between the NZ and Australian flags is one of the arguments for change in both countries
The similarity between the NZ and Australian flags is one of the arguments for change in both countries

I’m not sure how I would have voted had I been living at home in New Zealand these last 2 and a bit years. On my street here in Glasgow is a lodge of the Orange Order. It’s festooned with literally dozens of Union Flags, and uses them as a symbol of violence and provocation 2 or 3 times a year. I have friends here who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles who still refer to the Union Flag as the ‘Butcher’s Apron’. All of this is part of a history that New Zealand, quite understandably, wasn’t really taking into account during the flag debate, so I’ll admit that my view on the issue is almost certainly coloured by my recent change of residency. But what about our own history? Because it really does bother me that we just decided to keep a symbol of an expansionist Empire that has committed genocide multiple times, introduced the world’s first concentration camps in South Africa, and most importantly in the context of this question, was brutal in its exploitation and cultural and linguistic suppression of the indigenous Māori population of Aotearoa.

Image from the New Zealand Land Wars, Te Ara Encyclopedia
Image from the New Zealand Land Wars, Te Ara Encyclopedia

In that talk in Stirling in 2014, I had this to say about the changes in identity that have taken place in New Zealand since our flag was introduced:

“Over the 20th century New Zealand, along with other dominions, gradually gained greater levels of independence from the UK. We became a Dominion in 1907, signed the Treaty of Versailles independently and became part of the League of Nations, just as we helped to create and form the United Nations following WWII. In 1947 the Statute of Westminster Act made NZ essentially as independent as a Yes vote would make Scotland, and since that time, little by little, New Zealand has separated itself from its British identity. When the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, essentially abandoning its colonies to their own economic fates, New Zealand was forced to look elsewhere to send its exports, and its relationship with the UK was forever changed. Since WWII Aotearoa has also asserted its independence by refusing to follow Britain into conflicts such as the Iraq War. The Queen is still our head of state, and republicanism is largely seen as the domain of our neighbours across the Tasman Sea, but a dual identity of New Zealandness and Britishness is something of the past.”

 

map
Map of the British Empire, 1886

 

So perhaps I was wrong, and that dual identity continues, for better or worse – or both. The status quo has won again. We’ve gone from here to there, and £13 million later ended up back in Union Square. And I can respect that vote and the decent arguments behind it. But I certainly won’t stop hoping that we will eventually say goodbye to our current flag, goodbye to the Union Jack/Flag, goodbye to the Empire. I won’t even stop hoping that one day there will be an apology for the crimes of that Empire, and that Aotearoa can move on with a new independence, whilst still respecting our past and developing a newer, healthier relationship with the UK.

In the meantime, in some ways the debate itself is the best outcome from such votes, even when nothing changes as a result, so I’m determined not to let a bit of material no one really uses much to represent NZ anyway get me down. As the song says:

‘Yes I do believe I might be having fun’ – Bic Runga, “Get Some Sleep”

 

The full version of my Antipodean Referenda paper is copied below,

Abstract

Potentially within days of each other, New Zealanders and Scots will both vote in significant referenda which will alter the way not only those countries but all parts of the former British Empire view themselves. September 18th will see Scots answer the question: should Scotland be an independent country. Sometime on or soon after September 20th New Zealand voters will decide whether or not to keep the current flag of that already independent nation. The media of each country indicates that each is broadly aware of the other’s referendum. It is not evident that voters are aware of just how significant these referenda are to each other, and indeed to the international community if either or both should vote for change. This presentation will examine ways in which these two votes are relevant to each other, and why we should be paying much closer attention to the fact that they are coinciding as part of one historical moment that could spell the end of Empire.

 

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, announced on March 11 that New Zealand will be holding a referendum on whether or not to change the nation’s flag. This announcement came 2 days after he announced the election date as September 20th – 2 days after Scotland will vote on whether or not to become an independent country.

The parallels are striking, and after Key’s announcement regarding the flag referendum was posted on UK news sites such as the BBC, many antipodeans (by which I mean people living in the UK – the word antipodean referring to the opposite), seemed to suddenly take notice of New Zealand politics. Many people in the UK don’t appear to quite understand that this question of the flag comes up in the New Zealand political sphere roughly once every 24 months, and that from the age of 4 in kindergarten drawing exercises to adolescent speech competitions, Kiwi kids are asked to consider this question throughout their lives. What New Zealanders in turn seem to be largely unaware of, is that there is every chance that the Union Flag – whose existence on our own flag is at the heart of most of the debate – could itself disappear should there be a Yes vote on September 18th.

The timing of this announcement is, of course, politically motivated. John Key’s National (Tory) Party coalition government has consistently kept ahead of the main opposition, Labor, since their first election in 2008. But this lead is slipping as Labor finally organise themselves into some semblance of a major political party, and as New Zealanders begin to feel the welfare cuts and benefits to big business and wealthy property owners at the expense of everyone else which have stemmed from John Key’s administration. Whatever you think of John Key (when talking with people over here I generally describe him as ‘David Cameron light’ which seems to provide people with a fairly accurate understanding, and I’m afraid my own bias is probably already evident), whatever you think of him, the guy is a brilliant politician. He has about as much personality as a potato but has somehow attracted the epithet ‘charismatic’ because of his complete mastery of the sound bite. That and the phrase “aw look” which makes him seem like just a reasonable guy trying to do a reasonable job. I’ll give you an example. Key might be asked a question like: “how do you respond to those calling you homophobic after you referred to a radio host’s jersey as ‘gay’?” Key will come back with “Aw look, it’s just a turn of phrase my son uses and it has absolutely nothing to do with my feelings towards people who aren’t straight. Let’s focus on the real issue here”. He is the master of distraction. Enter the flag. Even though Labor responded by saying “Yep, we won’t argue with you, we’ll have a referendum, but it’s not an election issue”, such is the nature of the flag in NZ that even without Labor taking the bait, facebook, twitter, every NZ news outlet, even UK news outlets, buzzed with the flag in the days following Key’s announcement, and no one wanted to talk about boring stuff like the silent destruction of social housing policy (“aw look, I grew up in a state house”) or the fact that I can now expect to be arrested at the border when I return home unless I make student loan repayments – with interest – while I am here on a scholarship from the Governor General. (aw look, Labor’s ideas about student loans are just ridiculous and unsustainable). Bringing up the flag debate within 48 hours of announcing the election is a piece of inspired politics which, for a few days at leasrt, completely and utterly succeeded in distracting not just the NZ public, but people in the UK as well.

So what are the arguments for and against our current flag? What do Kiwis discuss when this comes up, and please believe me when I say it comes up frequently.

This is the flag of New Zealand. It is made up of 3 components: the Union Jack, the southern cross, and a blue background commonly understood to represent the sea which surrounds us. Fairly obviously the flag of Britain is there because they are our colonial masters. Although colonisation of NZ was markedly gentler than elsewhere, it was nonetheless brutal in its exploitation and cultural and linguistic suppression of the native Māori population.  Cultural hegemony in New Zealand decreed that Britain knew best, an idea which has never quite left the minds of New Zealanders. Just turn to our literature for proof. Robin Hyde’s masterpiece, The Godwits Fly, Curnow’s poem, “The skeleton of the great moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch” which ends with the lines that have defined NZ literature ever since, and trapped an awful lot of it in a post-colonial nightmare of an identity which struggles to exist separate to Britain – “Not I. some child born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.”

Even the Maori renaissance of the last 40 years, characterised by the genius of fiction writers such as Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, or poets like Hone Tuwhare, as well as dominance in the world of film and theatre, has reinforced this hegemony in many ways, even as it provides a long-overdue Maori voice in mainstream literature.

Over the 20th century New Zealand, along with other dominions, gradually gained greater levels of independence from the UK. We became a Dominion in 1907, signed the Treaty of Versailles independently and became part of the League of Nations, just as we helped to create and form the United Nations following WWII. In 1947 the Statute of Westminster Act made NZ essentially as independent as a Yes vote would make Scotland, and since that time, little by little, New Zealand has separated itself from its British identity. When the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, essentially abandoning its colonies to their own post-colonial fates, New Zealand was forced to look elsewhere to send its exports, and its relationship with the UK was forever changed. Since WWII Aotearoa has also asserted its independence by refusing to follow Britain into conflicts such as the Iraq War. The Queen is still our head of state, and republicanism is largely seen as the domain of our neighbours across the Tasman Sea, but a dual identity of New Zealandness and Britishness is something of the past.

The Union Jack’s presence on the flag is probably the primary driving force behind any desire for change. We’re ok with being loosely associated with the UK, but to have their flag dominate our own seems to reflect a constitutional and emotional situation which hasn’t surfaced since the Second World War. Why isn’t NZ driving for a republic in that case if no tangible benefit remains from being one of the final remnants of the British Empire? It’s harder for me to enter your country for instance than someone from the EEC like Germany or Poland, somewhere without a massive post-colonial hangover. To begin with there’s the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of NZ signed in 1840 between Māori chiefs and Queen Victoria. Divorcing from the monarchy would jeopardise the extremely shaky truce this treaty has spent the last 174 years safeguarding. Then there’s the fact that even though New Zealand has a reputation for being liberal, and in many ways this is richly deserved, there is a deep-set conservatism of the kind the Better Together campaign is able to make use of in Scotland. Why upset the apple cart? It ain’t broke so don’t try and fix it.

[Slide 3]

Interestingly, and perhaps not unrelated to the flag debate or even Scottish independence, the royal tour a couple of weeks ago kick-started republican murmurings to a level I have never seen before. Royal visits are not uncommon and are generally greeted by a bit of flag waving , some cute children handing over flowers, a speech about how lovely NZ is which is replayed for a few weeks and we all go home. This time is different. Wills and Kate’s sojourn in New Zealand cost the taxpayer $1 million, a fact that was widely reported. Blogs and new sights were flooded with a combination of gushing about how cute the baby prince is and how ‘normal’ his parents seemed, and questions about why on earth we should have, as our head of state sometime in the distant future, this child who would live and identify with a country that is increasingly alien to us, and following Scottish independence would be even further removed from New Zealand culture.

So that’s one component. Another is the Southern Cross. This is visible from anywhere in the southern hemisphere, and while it did lead to the discovery of Aotearoa roughly 1000 years ago by Polynesian explorers, it also lead to the discovery of pretty much every other piece of land in the Pacific by the ancestors of those explorers, and is not in any way uniquely New Zealand.

Then there’s the colour scheme.

Red, white and blue. Not only distressingly common but blatantly irrelevant to every other recognisable marker of New Zealand identity. On maps we are typically represented as green. Green for safe, for not a problem, for lacking in people, for environmentalist, all of which is broadly true. The phrase “Clean, Green New Zealand” is well-known and not without foundation. But really, our national colours derive from a typographical error. In 1905 when the New Zealand rugby team toured the British Isles (and completely dominated every bit of it apart from Wales by the way), a London newspaper is supposed to have described the team as playing like they were “all backs”, but an errant ‘l’ made its way in there somehow, and the name has forever stuck (becoming uncomfortably relevant during the controversial 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand which divided the nation along race lines). This may or may not have actually happened, but there’s no denying that since that ‘Invincibles’ tour pretty much every NZ sports team has played in black and white, and been known by confusingly similar names; Tall Blacks, Small Blacks, Black Sticks, Black Socks, White Ferns, Black Ferns, Black Caps, and even the disastrously ill-conceived “Black Cocks” for the national badminton team. It seems bizarre that a nation so universally represented by black and white should continue to have a flag dominated by blue and red.

But if we’re brutally honest, one factor pushes Kiwis to take to facebook and blogs and school speech competitions more than any other when it comes to our flag, and it’s not indignation towards imperial Britain.

It looks too much like Australia’s.

New Zealand and Australia have an extremely friendly relationship generally speaking. It’s probably a good deal more ‘special’ than the one between the UK and the USA for example, and each considers the other an equal. But we don’t like being mixed up. Australia is far to the right of New Zealand in their politics, they have a much more disastrous track record with their indigenous population, not to mention the female one, it’s hot over there and every animal, bug and bird wants to kill you. New Zealand is much smaller, more progressive and has absolutely no dangerous animals apart from the odd spider which makes its way across the Tasman in a shipment of bananas. New Zealand’s climate is also much more Scottish. Yet mixed up we frequently are. I’ve been told on my travels that New Zealand is part of Australia (and also, at other times, part of the UK, the USA and Europe). Since my arrival here 3 months ago, I’ve asked people to guess when they ask where I’m from. Dozens of times the answer has been Australia, and only twice has someone correctly picked the accent. Now all of this I don’t mind, it’s amusing mostly, but it does get wearing, and when our much smaller nation wins an Olympic gold, or visits a foreign country, we want to clearly see our own distinct flag flying.

In addition to closely resembling Australia’s flag, the NZ flag is hard to distinguish from those of Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Bermuda and Niue, along with several regions of North America, which also carry the Union Jack in their top left hand corners.

So how about the arguments in favour of keeping the flag (beyond, ‘we can’t be bothered changing it’)? The first argument is of particular relevance today, ANZAC Day – the New Zealand version of Armistice Day, which honours those who fought in Gallipoli on April 25th 1915 – an example of when New Zealand defied British military regulations and created the Māori battalion. This is the argument that the RSA and other veterans make for keeping the flag based on the idea that soldiers throughout New Zealand’s history have fought and died for it. There are obvious issues with this argument – principally one hopes those who have done fought for what that flag represents and not the actual design. But one of the leading arguments in favour of the flag is that it honours our history. Our history of friendship with Britain, including our current allegiance to a Queen who lives and reigns on the other side of the world, and our history of friendship and allegiance with the Pacific and our shared ancestry in those ancient mariners, Kupe and his whanau.

Should Scotland vote yes, or even before that, I would be highly surprised if flag related arguments like these stay out of the debate, if they haven’t already.

But what if Britain itself changes? Where does that leave us? If the Union disappears, and its flag along with it, what reason do we have to keep it on our own? Wouldn’t that definitively place our national emblem in the past? Either New Zealand journalists covering the flag debate don’t really know or care much about the referendum taking place here on September 18th, or they have no expectation that Scotland will vote yes. Perhaps they will be proved right, but to me it is almost laughable that these two debates surrounding two referenda are taking place, centred around 2 days in September, without each recognising the other.

If Scotland votes yes and the flag changes, I believe that will prove a mortal wound for the current New Zealand flag. At present only around one quarter of the country wish to change it, although polls vary quite drastically, but in the event of a referendum, preceded by months of debate, I would be extremely surprised if New Zealand does not ultimately vote for change, regardless of whether or not Scotland does.

But what should probably be beginning to strike fear into the hearts of Unionists everywhere, is the way in which these two referenda are travelling alongside each other on the motorway of history. New Zealand is one of the last ‘loyal’ colonies – and we can hardly be called British any more. Although we saw through the twentieth century’s falling dominos of Empire as nation after nation declared its independence, we did not remain a subservient member of the Great British Empire. Although Scotland is entirely complicit in the creation of this enormous Empire, and its associated brutalities, it was itself colonised (I believe), and is closer than ever before to independence from that colonisation. If ‘Great Britain’ whatever that means, cannot retain its original colony and therefore even remain ‘Britain’, just at the moment when one of its most loyal outposts of empire decides to throw out one of the last remnants of its colonisation, are we seeing the last days of the British Empire, the kingdom, the dominion?

Admittedly I am in a unique position, a fortunate position my suffragette ancestors would have imagined in their wildest dreams. For a while it looked like I’d end up voting three times within a week – should Scotland become an independent country, who should run New Zealand for the next three years, what should the New Zealand flag look like? But anyone who is being asked to consider any of these three questions should be considering the other two at the same time.

If Scotland, Britain and the UK change their identities, New Zealand can never remain unaffected. The southern regions of Otago, Southland and the West Coast consider themselves in many ways Scottish, whereas the rest of the South Island, Te Wahi Pounamu – Canterbury and Nelson/Marlborough, are broadly considered English. Liam McIlvanney, writing on the anglocentric anthologising of New Zealand literature from the Anglican and distinctly English city of Christchurch, suggests that an archipelagic revision of British history would benefit from including an oceanic perspective, which takes into account these ‘neo-Britains’.

So where does an independent Scotland leave us? Whether most New Zealanders are aware of it or not, Scottish independence will not leave them untouched, especially when it comes to our own understanding of our national identity and how that relates to Britain. To give credit where it’s due, many more New Zealanders are becoming aware of the independence debate here in Scotland, especially in the Scottish south where, in my home town of Dunedin, our one and only statue which sits in our town centre (the octagon) is of Robbie Burns, and Professor McIlvanney has thus far attracted devolution campaigner Will Storrar and the Scottish Education Minister, Mike Russell to speak.

If Scotland votes yes on September 18th and then on September 20th New Zealanders  vote in a government which immediately sets a date to vote on the flag then they must acknowledge the relationship. New Zealand cannot, in a vote closely associated with Empire and the emblem of that empire, regard Scottish independence as incidental. And neither should Britain.

If, by the end of 2015, New Zealand has no Union Jack, and Scotland votes Yes, or even if they Vote No but a significant number of Scots do vote yes, then what’s left of Britain will need to very seriously reflect on what that means. Heads will need to emerge from the sand and acknowledge that the time of British dominance is at an end, even where it remains in hegemonic discourse, in the difficulties of indigenous populations, and even if Kiwis are ready to smile indulgently at the infant Prince as he chews on a buzzy bee toy.

The very fact that these referenda are happening should be having this affect. These are the final nails in the coffin of Empire, and it’s time to acknowledge it and apologise. Christopher Whyte remarks:

Perhaps what I am hoping for, not just on a symbolic level, is that those living in an independent Scotland can prove willing to face their dark side, which would mean an honest settling of accounts with the past. Our past is never over, never finished, we add to it and revise it in continuation… however afraid we may be of the darkness we carry inside us, and also inhabit, it can be the location of our most fruitful potential.

It’s time to say sorry and recognise the deep scars that can never heal from that time of expansionism. It’s an apparently simple step but from that acknowledgement can come infinitely more positive relationships with all of those dozens of nations that suffered and continue to suffer from the colonial period.

Scotland must appreciate that it is not just Scotland who’s fate is in the hands of the voters come September. Just as New Zealand must appreciate that far more than a flag may pass into history when they go to the polls shortly afterwards.

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