Events have moved at a brisk clip since a January editorial in the Listener reignited debate over the national flag. Prime Minister John Key seems to have taken our headline – “Just do it” – to heart. Sometime between the general elections of 2014 and 2017, New Zealanders will vote in a referendum that may see the current flag, with its anachronistic Union Jack in the top left quadrant, jettisoned in favour of something distinctively our own.
Our editorial commented that if Canada’s experience in the 60s was anything to go by, a change of flag needed to be driven by a single-minded politician – in Canada’s case, Prime Minister Lester Pearson. Whether Key will pursue the idea of a new flag with the same determination remains to be seen, but already the proposal has progressed further than ever.
Wisely, Key has backed away from holding a referendum to coincide with this year’s election, which would have exposed him to the accusation that he was seeking to distract voters from more immediate issues. Equally sensibly, he has had second thoughts about his initial suggestion that the Government choose an alternative flag design and give the public a simple “yes” or “no” choice. The process now outlined, and supported by the major parties, means a cross-party group of MPs will work on the detail of the referendum while a working group from outside Parliament seeks submissions on alternative designs.
So far, so good. A new flag, if New Zealand decides on one, will be with us for a long time. The process of choosing it must not be rushed, and voters should not be left feeling short-changed by a lack of consultation. As Key says, a flag that unites all New Zealanders should be selected by all New Zealanders.
Voters will hold him to that undertaking, but it means the bar has been set high. First, New Zealanders must decide whether the existing flag no longer adequately represents us. This magazine, along with the Prime Minister, believes so. Even the Queen’s representative, Sir Jerry Mateparae, seems to agree. Opinion polls, however, vary wildly on whether it’s the majority view. A One News-Colmar Brunton survey in February found 72% wanted the present flag retained, but a Fairfax-Ipsos poll at about the same time found that only 38% of New Zealanders wanted to keep it.
If it achieves nothing else, a referendum will resolve that issue one way or another. If New Zealanders vote to keep the symbolic link with Britain, the debate will end there – for the time being, at least. But the potentially far more divisive issue will be the selection of a new one.
Polls indicate that of those voters who favour change, most prefer the silver fern on a black background, but already the arguments against it are being volubly rehearsed. Among them, in descending order of plausibility: the silver fern is a sporting symbol, not a flag; black is associated with death and piracy; the fern will be mistaken for a white feather, symbol of cowardice; and perhaps most absurdly, a black flag will align New Zealand with a brand of fly spray.
The Listener’s preference is for a flag along the lines of the one created in 2004 by architectural design student Kyle Lockwood, incorporating the silver fern and the Southern Cross. But the bottom line is that whatever flag is chosen, it should be instantly identifiable (unlike the present one, which was famously flown in honour of Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke on a visit to Ottawa in 1984), be aesthetically pleasing and make an emphatic statement about our unique nationhood.
From a political perspective, the timing is right for a referendum. The economy is showing robust growth and the country has emerged from the global financial crisis in an optimistic mood – ideal conditions for a declaration of national self-confidence.
At the heart of the debate lies a simple question. Does New Zealand have a clear sense of its own national identity or are we still so unsure of ourselves that we must present ourselves to the world as a distant appendage of a former colonial power? The referendum will give New Zealanders a chance to answer that question in the only way possible.