Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Great Flag Debate


Today the results of the New Zealand flag referendum were released, and we’ve opted to stay with the current flag, for the time being at least. I say ‘we’, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t permitted to vote. I applied to vote, but I’ve been living out of the country for too long for my opinion to be valid, it seems. Not long enough to avoid being chased for debt, but long enough not to be allowed to have a say in this important matter. But that’s another story.
In any case, the flag remains the same. Had I been able to vote, I would have chosen – well, you’ll see my thoughts if you keep reading, which I assume is why you’re here.
The arguments for and against changing the flag (at least the ones I heard) were as below, along with a few other relevant points:
  1. It looks like a beach towel. I never really liked this argument, and honestly it could be applied equally to either flag. As you can put literally any image on a beach towel, I found this to be a pointless thing to say.
  2. Our flag looks too much like Australia’s flag. True, although depending on how you define it, ours has been around longer, so maybe theirs is the one that should change. I find it strange, though, that we should consider such an important thing as changing the flag in relation to how we are perceived by others. What I mean is, why does it matter if our flag looks like Australia’s? Any self-respecting kiwi should have learned to identify the flag in their youth, and outsiders are going to compare us to Australia no matter how our flags look.
  3. We want the flag to be individual. Again, our flag isn’t ‘unique’ enough. I don’t really get the obsession with being different from everyone else. Poland and Monaco have basically the same flag, and you don’t see them getting bent out of shape about it. Just google ‘flags that look similar’ to find other examples.
  4. John’s Key’s personal crusade: let’s face it, he wanted to change the flag, so he could be known as the man who changed the flag. It would distract so well from all the terrible decisions he’d made while in office, and leave him some kind of legacy beyond hair pulling. As has been pointed out, though, the money could have been better spent. I’m not against spending money on issues like these when the time is right, but the time was not right, and Key failed (or refused) to see that.
  5. The Silver Fern: let’s put the silver fern on the flag. Another aspect championed by Mr Key, to the extent that most of the shortlisted designs had the fern on them. I get that most of us love the All Blacks, but they (and other sporting teams) don’t represent the interests of the entire country. We’re about more than sport. And I get that the fern is a plant which doesn’t grow anywhere else, but so is rangiora.
  6. Getting rid of the Union Jack: New Zealanders are fiercely independent, and despite that fact that we’re still part of the Commonwealth, and have to have our laws signed off by a Governor General, many of us dislike being thought of as a British colony. I don’t think that this historical (and current) connection is a bad thing, and I don’t think it can be erased simply by changing the flag. That kind of change must come in law, and an alteration to our national ensign is a bit like papering over a deeper crack. To my mind, the removal of the Union Jack would be more appropriate when NZ finally becomes a republic and/or leaves the influence of the Queen behind. This takes me to my next point.
  7. The timing was wrong. For me, as I said, the flag change should happen when NZ becomes truly independent (which I believe is inevitable). Countries change their flags after moments of great turmoil and upheaval. South Africa changed theirs to help the country move past the horrors of apartheid. Rwanda changed theirs after the 1994 genocide. Were we supposed to change ours because we didn’t like the way it looked?
  8. I think at the root of the flag argument is the fact that New Zealand is a young country, still struggling with its own identity, still trying to define itself and be represented on the world stage. But that’s also why I think we should wait to change the flag. We don’t appear to know ourselves well enough yet to be able to devise a meaningful flag. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, just that we’ve yet to fully define our own path, set our own agenda, even integrate our own peoples. We can’t even decide to call ourselves all New Zealanders without reference to whether we’re Maori or non-Maori. It’s no bad thing to wait until we are more unified and collected as a people to decide on our national symbols.
  9. Let’s be honest, many of us didn’t take it seriously. Laser Kiwi, anyone?
  10. World Wars, and all that. One of the most common comments I saw was that somebody’s grandfather fought and/or died for the flag. I have to say, while I understand people’s feelings of respect and honour towards those who went to war for us, let’s be honest, they didn’t do it for the flag. They did it for the people they loved, the country they loved, or out of a sense of duty. In fact, a lot of men still considered themselves to be a part of Britain, and went to fight for her unhesitatingly during the first and second world wars. So it’s hard to say that they were thinking of the national colours rather than their wives and families when they stepped on to foreign soil with rifles in their hands. Of course, I don’t really know what they were thinking, but I know what I would have thought if it were me. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to those men to want to have a flag which represents our national identity; that freedom of expression is one of the very things they fought for.

To sum up, my principal objection to the flag change was that the timing was wrong. The flag should be changed when the country becomes fully its own, and when we have a better idea of who we are as a people. I also think it was a costly exercise, started for the wrong reasons. I have no doubt that the flag will change one day, and I have no objection to this. But we’re stuck with old four-starred Jack for now, and I’m just fine with that.

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