False Flags

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When politicians start talking about “our” flag, this is reason to be on alert.

The timing may have been coincidental when on the 7th anniversary of the “terror raids”, Prime Minister John Key announced a two-staged referendum to “decide on New Zealand's flag”. The first stage would take place at the end of 2015, the second stage is to be held in April 2016.

National flags are strange things. Originally used as a rallying marker during military battle, they have evolved into symbols of nation states and patriotism. Usually, when politicians start talking about “our” flag, this is for one of two reasons. Either, they want to distract from another issue which they want to keep silent, or they see the need to raise the level of patriotism, often in preparation for going to war. Looking at the global situation, it is not hard to see where this is heading. A few days after the flag announcement, Key touted plans to send troops to Iraq in order to train the Iraqi army. But in this case, there is a third factor that coincides: the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli, a.k.a. ANZAC day. No other event in NZ is going to raise patriotic feelings as much as this date and a flag debate couldn’t be timed better.

Flags have always been precious to the political right. Three days after Key’s flag statement, the neo-nazi group National Front held its annual “flag day” in Wellington to protest any change to their beloved piece of cloth. They are not the only ones opposed to a flag change. The RSA is also reported to be upset, arguing that its members have been “buried under that flag”. “It has a significant emotional hold on our membership,” says its president.

So why does Key want to change the flag? In a speech at Victoria University just prior to ANZAC day 2014, he said that the “flag symbolises a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed” and that it didn’t reflect modern NZ. That sounds odd coming from someone who very much represents the colonial ruling class. And, as the Press pointed out, if he wants to get rid off colonial relics, what about the knighthoods he re-instated, the national anthem and the country’s name? Not to mention the fact that most major NZ towns are named after British military leaders. Even on the symbolic level, leaving the colonial past behind would involve a lot more than changing the flag.

Maybe the second part of the above quote gives a clue: Key didn’t just talk a bout colonialism, but also about a “post-colonial era whose time has passed”. That fits nicely with National’s long running agenda of putting an end to Waitangi Tribunal claims. If even the post-colonial era has come to an end, surely no more grievances from that time need to be heard, is the message.

It is this Thatcher-like “end of history” talk that we need to be aware of. A Westminster-style government declaring the end of colonialism in NZ is in itself an act of colonialism. To make it look not so, public buy-in is needed, especially from Maori. Key, who didn’t have any problems selling off power companies despite widespread public opposition and with a narrow majority, wants to have two referenda on something that is – on the surface – completely irrelevant to people’s lives.

“He said it was important that a new flag design had input from the public and that a flag that united all New Zealanders was chosen,” the Herald reports. By linking the flag to the end of post-colonialism, the referendum is as much about a flag change as it is about absolving any future government from the liabilities of colonialism.

The cunning plan is to get those who were colonised to give their agreement to the “end of colonialism” idea. The government’s hope is that for a box of crayons and the chance to become the designer of the next national flag, people will forget that colonialism runs deep in society and won’t be ended by a flag change.

As for John Key, he simply wants to be remembered. Neither the sale of Mighty River Power nor the raid on Dotcom’s house are going to get him the mention in the history books he wants, so he needs to do something more symbolic. Maybe that is why he has left the flag issue to his third, and most likely last, term. If he fails, it doesn’t matter. But if he succeeds, he would probably see the flag change as a fitting legacy for himself.

In the meantime, the flag debate does its job on the patriotism front. Fairfax’s aptly named “Stuff Nation” section shows a reader contribution titled “Our National Identity Crisis” which has attracted over 200 comments (as per 30/10). And the plans for the deployment of the SAS to Iraq continue without much public debate.

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