A Mediocre Idea

Special Edition #1

By Lamia Imam

Should New Zealand’s flag be changed? In short, yes probably.  I think a lot of us who in our personal lives are aligned to the political left might be irritated that our Prime Minister, who we don’t always hold in high esteem, has come up with this idea. But that is petty and unproductive. I’m a first generation Kiwi so I will happily admit that the current flag and I do not really share a warm fuzzy relationship wrapped in ancestral significance. In fact, my ancestors much like NZ’s tangata whenua were colonized by the Brits and therefore, I have a lot of ill feelings towards that regime and what it represents. The Union Jack aside, I also do not like the red, white and blue because to me it still symbolizes colonialism and US imperialism. But this is not about my aesthetic preference. This is about our national identity, the expression of our independence and our unique culture. Will changing the flag do that?

I always assumed that our flag would eventually change when we actually achieved something to deserve that change. We are not completely independent as a nation but we have been working towards it. Our judiciary is independent, our legislature is independent but our executive is not since the Queen of England is still our official head of state. I have spent a lot of time outside of New Zealand and by far people give me much more grief about still holding on to the Monarchy than how similar our flag is to Australia.

One thing that has really surprised me is that the flag discussion has not brought up the fact that we have a Constitutional Advisory Panel also looking at our constitutional arrangements. Their work suggests that there does not exist a lot of immediate national appetite to change the way we are set up as a country. But logically it makes no sense to me that we would change our flag while the Treaty settlement process is still on-going and while we are constitutionally speaking still tied to Britain. Some have cited Canada as a model for change. I do not believe the Canadian example is necessarily applicable to New Zealand, however, it is a compelling argument. Canada’s head of state is still the Queen of England but their flag does uniquely represent Canadians. There is an argument to be made that a flag change might propel us towards being a Republic, which would be a favourable outcome but I am not convinced that it will.

There is a Bill for the referendum to change the flag. The Select Committee just reported back on the Bill on the 29th of June. In a somewhat bizarre move, we are going to choose an alternative flag first and then decide whether we want to even change it. I think as a nation we should decide that we actually want a different flag first and then work to change it to something that reflects our identity, independence and culture. The media has been reporting that hardly anyone has shown up to the flag change meetings up and down the country which must be disappointing to the government.

The government often uses subjective understanding of what is a “priority” to them as way to refuse to address difficult policy problems. Changing the flag is not a civil rights issue and I think we can legitimately say that this change is really not a priority for Kiwis given the enormous problems the country is currently facing. I do think the flag should change. I do not think the current flag is inclusive or representative and I think it symbolizes a history of colonialism which is offensive. However, the process seems to be flawed and the timing seems to be wrong. I think John Key desperately wants something non-controversial to be part of his legacy as Prime Minister because “being really liked” is not very Statesman-esque. As ex-Minister Simon Power said in his valedictory speech – “Once in office, you’ve got to do something. That is why having a plan matters. Ideas also matter. In politics, ideas matter more than the political players themselves, because those people will come and go, but ideas endure.” John Key seems to be approaching this without a concrete plan. It is a good idea but it’s an ill-timed and ill thought out idea. I think the end result will be a banal flag with predictable designs. Like Canada, we will get used to it and accept it but I am not entirely sure that we will necessarily invoke John Key in our minds when we stand below it.

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