Two flags flying – what does it all mean?

Seeing the tino rangatiratanga flag flying over prominent New Zealand landmarks will swell the pride of many Maori. But should a flag representing only one people only fly from government buildings? Is it exclusive? And what does it stand for?

Today, anyone strolling around Wellington or driving across Auckland will notice a new flag flying from prominent landmarks. Despite it being our national day, it will not be our national flag. Should that vex us?

I've long been in favour of a new flag and believe we need to be discussing the alternatives, just as I think we should be investigating a range of constitutional changes. But this week I feel fonder of the current flag than I have been for a long time. It may just be for a day, but raising the tino rangatiratanga flag above our national institutions has powerful symbolism and I confess I'm uneasy about that, in part because I'm unclear about exactly what it is saying.

Does it symbolise a desire for separate government, or devolution, or absolute sovereignty? If so, is the government saying it supports that? Is it an acknowledgement of the tino rangatiratanga promised in the treaty, and what are the political implications of that?

Does it simply recognise the place of Maori in New Zealand, as Treaty partners? If so, should it be the Maori flag and the union jack flying side by side? What does it say about Maori unity versus iwi identity?

Or is it a patronising token that gives Maori the 21st century equivalent of a musket and a blanket while at the same time distracting them from genuine political change?

We're in a transition phase in our history as a nation, rebuilding the Aotearoa part of the New Zealand duplex; adding on some rooms, slopping on some paint. The building's still a little shaky, and to that end, I'll delight in seeing the Maori flag flying because it's inclusive of Maori and represents Maori aspiration.

My nagging concern is that while it's inclusive of Maori, it's exclusive of pakeha.

Some Maori will say that's the way they've long felt about the existing New Zealand flag; that it's not their flag. And looking at the tino rangatiratanga flag, I can understand that. Some will say it's the Crown flag. It's not, that's the Union Jack. But those who argue that it's the pakeha flag can make a strong case, given that it was chosen by a predominantly pakeha parliament in the midst of a colonial war in South Africa and is still dominated by the union jack, the great emblem of a faded empire.

But at least there is room for Maori under that flag; room to be Maori New Zealanders under the Southern Cross. By dint of history, that flag has flown over Maori on battlefield, school field and sports field for more than a century. It has flown during the Maori renaissance of the past 30 years. Sure, it has been a symbol of loss and of a state that has not always treated its Maori citizens well, but it has also symbolised the good that New Zealand government's have done, from the welfare state to the Waitangi Tribunal.

I'm not sure there is room for me under the tino rangatiratanga flag, however. I don't know what it stands for, beyond that the black represents Rangi, the red Papatuanuku and the white the physical world. That's explained here, along with info about other alternative flag designs.

Perhaps I can read an invitation into the flag; that Maori are willing to share their myths and values with me as a pakeha. Perhaps I should take a message from the fact that the flag has been flown in anger many times. My point is, it's not clear who or what the flag represents, except that on this day, it doesn't represent me.

Whatever values are woven into that design, I suspect they are particular to Maori. Otherwise, what's the point? So it's simply not a flag that speaks of me and my place in the world, and in this country  .

That's fine inasmuch as it represents Maori aspiration and mana. I can support those without needing to be included. I can accept that its meaning has evolved to be more than just a protest flag. I can get behind the empowerment such a flag gives Maori, I welcome a debate about what self determination means in practice.

But it's not my flag   . So when it flies on Premier House, Te Papa and other government buildings, I'm discomforted. Any flag that flies from government buildings should stand for something that seeks to encompass all New Zealanders, just as government buildings should be for all New Zealanders.

How does this story end? Does the tino rangatiratanga just get rolled out for Waitangi Day? Does it extend to other national occasions? As it's used more often, does the New Zealand flag mean less to Maori and is there a greater divide, however emblematic?

I'm not one to pretend 'we're all one people'. But we are many peoples in one nation and those things that unify us as a nation across ethnic, gender and class divides – amongst others – are precious.

We are a small, prosperous country that has every right to be proud of its race relations, however imperfectly executed. We have not had to deify a flag to instill unity into individual souls, in the way America and other countries have done. Most of us can debate with flag without feeling that to lose the argument is to lose our identity. And thank goodness for that.

At the same time, a flag must mean something bigger than ourselves. And the political capital spent getting this flag onto government buildings must mean something as well. I'm not sure I like what two flags could come to represent.

This move by the Key government to fly the flag from eight government buildings must give new impetus to discussion about a new flag; one that honours our ancestors' voyages from both Europe and Hawaiki, says something of our place in the world now, and represents our shared values and partnership. We need one flag big enough to inspire and include many peoples.