When John Key first raised the issue of changing the flag it seemed like a random flight of fancy, especially when he referred to our flag as a “brand” – as though we should decide whether we fancied the silver fern or the Zespri logo.
But his musings have provided the opportunity for us to think about our flag, and make sure it does reflect the story of who we are as a nation. The current one, a modified British Navy ensign, certainly does not.
The Flag Consideration Panel with its “Stand For” campaign has invited the discussion. Once we understand and agree on who we are as nation, designing a new flag should be easy. Ideally it will lead on to a conversation about the constitution we want to encapsulate our values.
Three arguments against change have surfaced. The $26 million cost is too high, the money should be spent elsewhere, and our soldiers fought for the current flag.
I agree $26 million is too much, particularly in a world where the internet allows us to get feedback and ideas very cheaply. But I don’t agree that a change of flag is not a priority – the current salute to British imperialism is cringeworthy, and an insult.
The last argument is more than a little ignorant. Changing the flag in no way disrespects our soldiers’ sacrifice, in fact it enhances it. Our sense of nation was forged on the shores of Gallipoli, yet 100 years on we continue to fight under the symbol of the colonial power that not only horrifically messed up that campaign, costing our lives, but whose earlier legacy was wholesale abuse of undertakings made to Maori in the Treaty of Waitangi.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the current flag. The history of the New Zealand flag is told on the Stand For website and reflects the rather haphazard tale of using the British Navy’s ensign with various symbols over the years. Since 1835, NZ has used a variety of designs as the national flag. Our current flag dates from 1902 and its history shows it is all about, and only about, British imperialism. Why do we remain sycophants to that?
In 1926 we became a Dominion and got our first Prime Minister. In 1947 we shook off the colonial shackle and became independent. In 1973 Britain cut our preferential trade links when it entered the EU. It wasn’t until 1986 that our Constitution Act finally ended the right of the British Parliament to legislate here.
That’s too long a period of subservience to an imperialist power, reflecting our low level of self-confidence.
Our current flag reflects that national immaturity. It broadcasts that Aotearoa New Zealand is still really someone else’s possession. We belong to nobody else, and New Zealanders need to end this grovelling, stand up and acknowledge that we are grown ups now. Until we do, the colonial cringe remains part of our national identity.
We have spent an enormous amount of effort since 1975 acknowledging the Treaty of Waitangi as our founding document. It, rather than Hobson’s unilateral proclamation of colonisation, is the official basis for New Zealand. That’s official, no arguments, we need to keep moving forward from that fact. The Treaty recognises the rights of two societies to co-exist and share this land.
With our history of continued immigration we are clearly a multicultural society today, and we have a unique bicultural treaty that legitimises our presence here. The descendants of British settlers are only one of the peoples of this land, but all of us are New Zealanders – and we need a flag that acknowledges that and tells our story.
Public reticence about changing the flag is understandable – there are always strident elements allergic to any change and tragically slow to catch up with any kind of progressive thinking. But we have to marginalise that regressive inertia and get on with finding a symbol that truly tells the story of who we are as a nation.