National Identity

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While the US election is bigger international news, here in New Zealand we are debating a serious decision of our own:  whether or not to change our flag.  I’ve been in NZ for over twenty years and the discussion about changing the flag isn’t a new one.  As a social studies teacher every year one of the most popular activities for students was designing a new flag.  Students learned how if the choice of colour(s) and symbols are combined well they will reflect the values and history of a country.

You might be wondering what is wrong with the old flag?  The number one issue is that only one extra star in the Southern Cross distinguishes our flag from that of Australia.  It is a sore point among New Zealanders that many foreigners don’t recognise New Zealand as a country separate to Australia. Almost identical national flags doesn’t help in the confusion.

A second point of contention is the incorporation of the Union Jack, present in every original Commonwealth country’s flag.  The Queen is still considered the (symbolic) head of state while the NZ government operates independently from Britain.  Removing the Union Jack could be considered a step towards the establishment of New Zealand as an independent republic, a separate issue for debate.

I looked up the flags of the countries still included the Commonwealth and it was interesting to note that every country that changed their flag chose to remove the Union Jack as a part of the new design.  Some chose to retain all or a portion of the blue, white and red colours of the previous flag but many chose to break entirely from their original flags.

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Every person I know who is voting for the new design (the first one in the above selection) likes the design.  Not one person is voting for change simply because they don’t like the old flag.

And there is a lot to like about the new design.  The first half of it is the Silver Fern, a logo worn by all New Zealand athletes who punch well above their weight in a range of sporting events. During the 2015 Rugby World Cup flags emblazoned with this symbol were flown to support the All Blacks throughout the country in a wave of national pride.  Even for non-sporting enthusiasts the Silver Fern is a symbol that is instantly recognisable as being quintessentially Kiwi.

The second half of the design incorporates the Southern Cross in traditional Union Jack colours.  It links us to our past as well as identifying us by our location in the southern hemisphere.  The geographer (and star-gazer) in me loves this.

Those who want to keep the current flag feel its historic pull.  Veterans from each of the conflicts New Zealand has participated in feel very strongly that they and their deceased counterparts fought to defend what the flag represents and that includes our historic links with the Commonwealth.  The rise in popularity of Prince William and his wife Kate, and brother Prince Harry have also reinforced goodwill towards the British monarchy and our historic ties with Britain.

Other criticisms have been the amount of money spent ($26 million) when many other worthwhile budgets have been slashed, and the whole convoluted process that has gotten us to this point.  Initially, the government asked for submissions of new flag designs.

flags1The submissions were whittled down to five designs through a committee select process. Our first ballot asked that we rank the five choices in order of preference.  The current ballot is to decide between the winner of that process and our current flag.

I am ready for a change and after two decades of calling New Zealand home I feel comfortable in choosing a flag the represents our country well.  I have not been comfortable with the process that has gotten us to this point.  The initial referendum decision about whether New Zealanders want a flag change should have been placed on our normal election ballots to minimise the cost.  If the vote had been for change an on-line ballot could have been used to narrow the choices from the forty designs shortlisted to the clear favourites of no more than three designs.  The final ballot could have been added to the next general election ballot.

Elections take place every three years in New Zealand.  A decision to change a nation’s flag, its symbol of identity and history, surely deserves the time necessary to respect that process.

P.S.  The results of the referendum are to retain the current flag.  I’m hoping that the 57% win means we will revisit the issue again but in a more open manner.

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