New Zealand Flag Debate: Who does a flag represent?

The current New Zealand Flag Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The current New Zealand Flag
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Prime Minister John Key’s admiration for the Silver Fern as an ideal symbol of modern New Zealand brings out a stronger question: how can a single symbol represent the diversity of a whole nation?

Report by Lucy Stone

The four final designs for New Zealand’s new flag were recently released to the New Zealand public ahead of a referendum in November. While most commentary on the initiative to change the flag has been negative, it leaves the question: who does a flag represent?

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key initiated the change, determined to find a symbol that will better represent the country.

Despite the Prime Minister’s reiteration that removing the current flag does not forecast doom for the constitutional monarchy, none of the four finalists bear the familiar Union Jack.

Removing the Union Jack represents an idea of cultural reformation, and a step away from colonial history, although not yet in legal terms.

The Union Jack of the British empire. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Union Jack of the British empire.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

For some Maori commentators, removing the Southern Cross from the New Zealand flag is seen in similar terms to removing the Confederate Flag in the USA: a symbol of oppression and aggression that excludes certain people from a shared identity.

While the four New Zealand flag designs will be ranked through referendum in November, a petition to include a fifth design has gained ground in recent days.

The ‘Red Peak’ design focuses on the Maori legend of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, with the red mountain surrounded by borders of white, with blue and black triangles on either side. The colours of the Union Jack are reworked to create a totally new symbol of New Zealand identity.

The design is focused not only on the past, but also the future.

However, Prime Minister Key has refused to consider adjusting the referendum to include the flag for public voting.

Yet despite the late push for the ‘Red Peak’ design, the Silver Fern remains the most obvious, iconic and unifying symbol. Finding a symbol that does not reject, exclude or injure anyone can be a near-impossible task.

The Red Peak flag. Image courtesy http://aotearoaflag.tumblr.com/
The Red Peak flag.
Image courtesy http://aotearoaflag.tumblr.com/

But a symbol initially born in sport, one of the most unifying cultural institutions, has more positive connotations than the Southern Cross, born in war.

Prime Minister Key said, “For well over a century, the fern’s been an iconic and instantly recognisable symbol of New Zealand, it’s been a very strong part of our heritage and it works so well on a flag.”

Regardless of the outcome of the New Zealand flag referendum, the repercussions of New Zealand rejecting the traditional Union Jack could be felt in Australia.

While Tony Abbott may have been fond of it, the Australian flag retains a British imperial identity foreign to multicultural Australia today.

For most Australians, like New Zealand’s Maori, the Southern Cross has also been tainted in past years by racist acquisition, fracturing a unifying symbol into an us-versus-them identity.

So while Joe Hockey is pushing for Australia to become a Republic, perhaps he should be joining Bob Brown in pushing for a new flag — a new chance to ask the hard questions: who are we, and can a single symbol could represent an entire nation?

Even if these questions are too hard to answer just yet, perhaps it’s time we asked them.