Published daily by the Lowy Institute

New Zealand's flagging debate

New Zealand's flagging debate
Published 21 Sep 2015 

With New Zealanders now focused on questions of vital national interest, there's little room for what has become an insipid discussion on the future of the national flag. When he kicked off that debate early last year, Prime Minister John Key may have thought he could benefit politically from a literal example of the famous rally-round-the flag effect. But he's now reduced to dismissing a recent survey which indicates as few as one in four Kiwis really want a change.

Key has been on strongest ground in asserting that the existing flag lacks distinctness. Just one star short of the Australian version, and with a prominent Union Jack which also adorns many other Commonwealth country flags, New Zealand's ensign has also been unfavourably contrasted by its Prime Minister with Canada's unmistakable maple leaf. But the solution to this problem requires consensus around a singularly distinct New Zealand symbol and also energy to demand its adoption.

To many outsiders, that symbol might be obvious. The ubiquitous nickname for New Zealanders is that famous flightless bird already in use (somewhat ironically) by the country's air force. But the best known design featuring the kiwi was the one with the laser beam. Your public submission process is in trouble when the most notable offerings resemble the early auditions in American Idol. [fold]

The other obvious national symbol is the silver fern, worn with immense reverence by the most important group of New Zealanders in the history of the whole universe. Unfortunately, the fern flag with the black background fell out of favour at about the same time that allusions were made to the flag of ISIS. A stylized fern is there in two of the four last (and uninspiring) contenders, but is unlikely to compete effectively with the incumbent design in any future referendum.

As this process has meandered towards a stunning anti-climax, some commentary has suggested that it has come to look like a branding exercise and not a thriving discussion about New Zealand's national identity. But it isn't clear that New Zealanders were itching for the latter. One hundred years after the Gallipoli landings, New Zealand is in the middle of a four-year stretch during which much is being made of the First World War centenary (including in its more significant strategic moments). It's an odd time to highlight New Zealand's distinctness from Australia and its independence from the old empire.

But there may actually not be a right time for this debate. New Zealanders seem willing to put up with an unexciting national anthem (even if it has been improved with the practice of singing it in both Maori and English) and an unremarkable national flag. This is probably a healthy sign at a time when the uglier side of nationalism is becoming obvious in other parts of the world.

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