Vexillology is defined as the study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags. The word doesn’t come from the same etymological root as vexatious, but it may as well. Debate over the New Zealand flag has erupted intermittently over decades. Usually the combatants fight each other to a standstill and the country soon returns to a default setting of indecision and inertia. But the issue won’t go away; in fact we seem to be edging, albeit at a glacial pace, towards a consensus that a new flag is not only desirable but inevitable.
As long ago as 1979, National Cabinet minister Allan Highet proposed a flag that would have retained the Union Jack in the top-left corner but also incorporated the silver fern. Highet’s idea never flew, so to speak, but support for change has gradually gathered momentum.
In 1989, this magazine ran a flag design contest that attracted 600 entries – enough to demonstrate both a high degree of public interest and a discouraging lack of agreement on alternatives. The most popular option with readers was the status quo, although it attracted only 45% support.
In 1998, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley and the Tourism Board came out in favour of a flag showing the silver fern on a black background, eliminating the Union Jack entirely. In 2010, John Key expressed a similar preference. No formal proposals were put forward on either occasion.
It took Lloyd Morrison, a Wellington investment banker, to move the debate forward in 2004 by seeking a referendum on the issue. The campaign by Morrison, who died in 2012, won backing from, among others, high-profile sporting figures who regarded the silver fern as the emblem of choice for New Zealand supporters, probably because it didn’t risk being confused with the Australian flag. At the Athens Olympics, New Zealand chef de mission Dave Currie made a public plea for official adoption of the flag the country’s sports lovers had so clearly embraced (a preference displayed again during the 2011 Rugby World Cup).
The petition launched by Morrison attracted 100,000 names, well short of the 270,000 required for a referendum, but it ensured the subject got a thorough airing – and as with other issues (same-sex marriage, for example), debate tends to shift public opinion and lead to wider acceptance of change. By 2010, a poll done for the New Zealand Herald showed 52% of people favoured a new flag. Significantly, the poll also suggested the range of alternatives was narrowing. Of those wanting a change, most backed the silver fern.
Canadian experience suggests that to succeed, a campaign for a new flag needs to be driven by a prominent politician who’s not easily deterred by vocal opposition. In Canada’s case, that was Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who pushed through the famous maple leaf design – now one of the most recognisable of all national flags – in 1964.
So far, no New Zealand politician has shown any similar inclination, and the prospect of it happening in an election year, when party leaders can be expected to tiptoe around potentially divisive issues, is slim. But the time has come to put the issue squarely back on the table. New Zealanders may be quite clear about not wanting to become a republic, and for sound pragmatic reasons, but the flag is a different matter.
The economy has rebounded after the global financial crisis and New Zealanders are facing the future with increasing confidence. We make our own way in the world and have done since the UK left us to our fate in the early 1970s. Even the RSA has abandoned its once-implacable opposition to change, perhaps recognising that the argument that New Zealand servicemen fought and died under the existing flag is no longer as potent as it once was.
Besides, figures from the latest census confirm we have become one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, with an increasing number of citizens who feel no ties to Britain and who are probably bewildered by the anachronism that is our flag. What could be a more emphatic expression of our unique nationhood than to adopt a new one based on the silver fern – a flag that is instantly recognisable and unmistakably our own?