The Flag Debate

Special Edition #1

By Nicola Eccleton

I was about 18, and wandering along the waterfront at St Tropez (apologies for the bourgeois-ness), when we spotted one of those large, white, Georgetown registered, tax-havened launches flying an Aussie flag. My compatriot, of similar age, exclaimed “Hey! Kiwi flag,” and proceeded to argue with me that the New Zealand flag did, in fact, comprise of six white stars and a Union Jack on a blue background.

The startling realisation that not everyone recognised our flag was soon superseded by my growing understanding of colonisation and everything the Union Jack stood for, including assignation of the role of Head of State to a monarch on the other side of the planet.

The Union Jack is our history, which should be acknowledged, but it does not follow that we need to use it to represent what we have become. Interestingly enough, as I write this, the Charlestown massacre is in the news, and I have discovered that South Carolina flies the Confederate Flag. A flag that means hate, suppression and violence, is still flown on public buildings. Obama says it belongs in a museum. In New Zealand, the Union Jack does too.

It’s fair to say that I have long desired a new flag. It’s also fair to say I am really unexcited by the impending flag referendum. In trying to determine why, I can pinpoint only process, and John Key, that autocratic banker, famous for not caring about process, trying to turn this into a legacy project. The referendum is occurring before a genuine debate of the issues. And a panel chosen for its name recognition value incenses me. Call me crazy, but why can a genuine debate not be led by a panel of vexillologists, anthropologists, historians and designers? Or even a panel where half the people come from this group? Oh yes, there are a couple of academics, and I will be accused of academic snobbery. I also understand the importance of representation in politics, but seriously, who does Julie Christie represent; those with earning capacities over ten million per annum? Why are we educating people at all if they are not considered experts in their chosen fields? Why specialise in the study of flags, when if you wanted to be part of this discussion you should really have honed your sporting or business prowess? Why would you write a post, when you can just rant?

The other point that I find more interesting than any other is this chicken and egg questioning technique. “Would you like a new flag?” seems inherently the first question that should be asked, and it’s not. I am not actually convinced that this is the wrong way around. If we chose to change the flag, but didn’t agree on the design, we could end up forcing the issue and making an ill-considered, but expedient choice.

Yes, I would like a new flag. No, I am not particularly excited. And maybe, deep down, I’m just peeved. I wanted Aunty Helen to do it.

What makes a symbol?

Special Edition #1

By Andrew Chen

Symbols are visual metaphors – we see something, and it evokes a set of pre-conceived knowledge. We see ☮ and we think peace, anti-war, pacifist protests of the 70s and 80s, and all the free love that went along with that. It’s a symbol that was used by British nuclear disarmament activists made from the semaphore signals for the letters N and D, later used by anti-war campaigners in the US, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, crossing national and cultural boundaries around the world. A simple symbol conveys a lot of information – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.


A new flag is just another type of symbol – a visual image that should resoundly say “New Zealand” in a way that transcends language and geographic barriers. It should be something that we are proud of, something that when we carry overseas is immediately recognisable. When someone sees the flag, they should think “that’s a good country”. It should evoke some positive emotion, it should bring forth enjoyable memories, it should create some intangible sense that the country that the flag represents is of value. A new flag is as much a marketing exercise as it is about national identity.

In some ways it’s not too important what the actual symbol is, as long as it can be identified as uniquely New Zealand. That’s a good argument for why we should change the flag in the first place – the similarity to Australia’s flag does leave room for confusion, and from a branding perspective that leaves us in a dangerous place. Even with the status quo, New Zealanders do not proudly stand beside their flag – whether it’s at sporting events or when we’re selling tourism, the white fern on a black background features more commonly than our actual flag. For large swathes of the world and even large chunks of New Zealand, the existing flag evokes nothing. That’s something we need to fix.

Of course, symbols are not always independent or mutually exclusive. A flag is a place for multiple symbols to melt together, fighting for space on a limited canvas. The current flag perhaps uses symbols that do not exemplify New Zealand well, from the imperialistic vestige of the Union Jack to the naval waypoint of the Southern Cross (that we can’t even see half the time because of all the clouds). Most New Zealanders cannot relate to these symbols, and most foreigners cannot relate these symbols back to New Zealand. We’re long overdue for a rebrand.

For all the opponents who argue “why now?” the answer is that now is as good a time as any. We can postpone this indefinitely, but the longer we leave it, the longer our international image will be inhibited. We are lucky that we live in a country that doesn’t have the patriotic brainwashing of many others, and that we can even bring up the idea of changing the flag without being completely ostracised from society. The longer we leave the flag, the longer its legacy will last and the harder it will be to change. We have far better symbols than the existing flag, symbols that shout “NEW ZEALAND” to casual passers-by, symbols that New Zealanders are proud to show off to the world. Why should we continue to settle for a flag that poorly reflects who we are?

For all the opponents who argue that this process is costing too much, there’s no answer that will make them happy. Spend too little on the process and get accused of being undemocratic, spend too much and get accused of wasting public funds. How much is the right amount to spend? If we’re going through this process, it is far better to spend too much and get the flag right, than to spend too little and come up with a poor replacement. Let me be clear – we’re not going to be able to make everyone happy. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of politics and democracy, and sometimes compromises are not possible. There are indeed other important issues that need to be addressed, from poverty to housing to education. But our national identity is also similarly crucial, and getting this wrong has long lasting implications.

I don’t know what a new flag should look like. What I do know is that we have uniquely New Zealand symbols, from the Kiwi to the Silver Fern, that tell the world that New Zealanders aren’t far behind. When our young people go on their overseas experiences, I want a flag that makes the locals welcome the visitors with warm hugs. When our business people attend conferences and expos, I want a flag that makes people open up their wallets and trust that their money will be in good hands. When our team marches into the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, I want a flag that makes the crowd cheer louder than they cheer for any other country. We deserve a uniquely New Zealand flag to join our bag of symbols, a symbol that we can be proud of.

Nāu te Haki Nāku te Haki (Your Flag and My Flag)

Special Edition #1

By Ellipsister (Ed.)

Change the flag. Don’t change the flag. I’m ambivalent. Some suggest a new flag will enable us to move on from our colonist past. Others have endeared themselves to the monarchy so much so that they avidly defend our ties, and express their fury at the very mention of disposing of the Union Jack as part of our national identity. There are those, notably the RSA who view any change as a slap in the face to those who have served their country under the existing flag. A side issue, but one gaining much traction, concerns the $26 million price tag to fund the ‘Change the Flag’ campaign. But the flag debate is not really about the money.Or at least, it probably shouldn’t be. It’s about symbols and what many are hoping will birth a new sense of unity. However, I remain sceptical that a new flag will bring about anything close to what many of those pushing for the change are suggesting. One of my worries is the persistent reference to biculturalism to advance the need for a new flag. The idea is that a new flag will appropriately acknowledge the biculturalism of our country.  My issue is that rather than biculturalism being a concept understood as ‘two distinct cultures within a geographically defined space’, it is more often than not used as a euphemism for assimilation or incorporation.

Let me illustrate using cats:





Incorporation (a more subtle form of assimilation)


Note in both these latter examples, there are no longer two cats. We are also looking at the watering down, merging or selective picking of cultural aspects, which in my view risks rendering either or both cultures meaningless.We are also no longer talking in terms of biculturalism. In my opinion, the same applies when we talk about one flag to unite us all.

I have concerns around incorporating Māori symbols into the new flag because it feels, well, assimilatory especially since the national Māori flag does not have equal status to the New Zealand flag. You might have gathered by now then that I support dual national flags and I think that until the national Māori flag (i.e. the Tino Rangatiratanga flag) receives equal status with the New Zealand flag, then I care very little about changing the flag. I should of course note, that there is some opposition as to which flag represents a national Māori identity. However, in 2009 consultation hui were held throughout the country and 81% of participants favoured the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

The argument for dual flags is not new. Te Ata Tino Toa also advocate a dual flag policy. They explain that ‘at the moment the Tino Rangatiratanga flag can only be flown by the Government on certain days, such as Waitangi Day, but that needs to change’. So despite the principle of partnership enshrined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the government remain in control of the times at which Māori can express our unique identity. Before anyone argues ‘its separatist’ or a ‘barrier to one nation’, the Australian government recognises the Aboriginal national flag as having equal status to their national flag. Also, this one nation business is an expression of direct oppression of Māori. It reeks of assimilation. I also worry that if Māori symbols are incorporated into the national flag of New Zealand, then this could diminish any claims to sovereignty under Te Tiriti and may amount, or be perceived to amount to a surrender of our struggle for tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake. Additionally, any new flag will largely be decided by Pākehā and Tauiwi as the majority and therefore, it is not Māori who will determine which of our Māori symbols are included on the flag.

In saying that, I do think that a changed flag is probably a good idea. The existing flag is a reminder of a dark and painful history rather than a symbol of what we might hope for in the future. But as I said – I’d personally like to see equal status given to the Maori flag before seeing any flag change. Even if it’s not on the table at the moment.

On Our Own Two Feet

Special Edition #1

By Jordan McCluskey (Ed.)

Flags have been in the news a bit recently, you may have noticed. A thing most people do not really think about can in a moment become a flashpoint for argument about a nation, its history, and its future. Witness the tortured contortions of politicians in the Southern United States, over the removal of the flag of the rebellious Confederacy, which launched a civil war 154 years ago for the right to own human beings as property. Or more humorously, CNN confusing a mock ISIS flag covered in drawings of sex toys at London Pride for an actual ISIS flag, and bringing on a security analyst to gravely analyse the new development.

The genesis of our flag is that of a product of colonialism. Our first flag came about not because of Te Tiriti O Waitangi, but commerce. Ships from New Zealand in the 1830s had difficulties arriving in Australian ports because not being a formal colony, they could not fly the Union Jack. In 1834, the British resident James Busby in consultation with Māori created the flag of United Tribes, which was then superseded by the Union Jack upon the signing of Te Triti in 6 February 1840 by most Rangatira. From there, a more local flag was created with the adoption of the British blue naval ensign in the 1860s, reaching its final current design in 1902 with Richard Seddon’s favoured design of the blue naval ensign with the red white- bordered stars of the Southern Cross. It is noticeable that each stage Māori get less and less of a say.

Te Tiriti and its principles which are now part of our national life, ask that the Pākehā and Māori work together in a spirit of partnership. Despite this the Pākehā flag remains dominant. Some Iwi still fly the flag of United Tribes, and in recent times the Tino Rangatiratanga flag has also been adopted by some. The government has recently also allowed the latter flag to fly from government buildings on days of national significance. To change the flag we only need to look north to the land of maple syrup, ice hockey and tarsands oil (it is horrible, google it), Canada, to see what kind of serious debate we might need to have.

Canada, as a British colony also had a Union Jack based ensign flag. In the 1960s the leader of the politically dominant Liberal party (then out of office) Lester Pearson, promised a rapid flag change. Elected in 1963, Pearson presided over a Canadian flag debate that was partisan, long, rancorous, and took no account of the views of indigenous peoples. In the end however, Canada got a flag that reflected its own self-determination, its status as an independent sovereign nation and a powerful, recognisable national symbol. Changing the flag did not accelerate in the slightest a move towards a Canadian republic, and Canada remains a federal monarchy within the Commonwealth (former British Empire countries sports and games club)

The New Zealand debate has been by contrast, lacklustre. Public meetings have had pitiful turnouts. The website for flag designs submitted by the public has descended into farce. The divide between the New Zealand people and its politicians is a subject for another blog post, but it is extremely disheartening to see people rubbishing a potential flag, a powerful new national symbol, because it is seen as the legacy project of the National Party Prime Minister, John Key. It is also a false argument to submit that because people died while fighting under our current flag, it can never be changed. Your relatives, and mine, didn’t die for a rectangular piece of blue cloth with red stars and a Union Jack on it. They died for our shared values of tolerance, egalitarianism, democracy and a fair go. If we change our national symbol, the values it previously represented will not fade away, if anything they will become stronger because we have chosen a new flag that belongs to all of us.

So where to from here? As the process draws closer, minds are becoming clearer and more people are focusing on the real issue. Voters will rank four preferred designs in November-December this year, and then the highest ranking design will face a run off referendum in March 2016 next year. Both referendums are binding. In under a year we might have a new flag, this is terrifyingly close, given the lack of public engagement. I want a new flag, and personally I favour the Tino Rangatiratanga flag as our new national flag, for historical reasons. However, if the winning design of the first referendum is objectively terrible, I will vote for the status quo. This will inevitably mean the issue is not discussed again for a generation. I was rather the change was done right, then just done for the sake of it. In closing, I ask you to do me one favour: talk to your family and friends about this debate. It is important.

In a time of such rapid global change, we need a flag that belongs to all of us, not some of us. I hope the flag is changed. It is time to stand on our own two feet.