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Ditch the Union Jack

There is no groundswell of support in favour of a new flag,  so why does New Zealand’s centre-right PM support change?

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

New Zealand is considering changing its flag. And perhaps the most striking thing about the proposal is that it seems to have created as much excitement and angst overseas as it has at home.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph published an overwrought opinion piece in which editorial writer Christopher Howse adopted the patronising tone — all too familiar to New Zealanders, and probably Australians too — of an Englishman lecturing the feckless colonials on their foolishness. He thinks New Zealand would be crazy to jettison the Union Jack, and argues that adopting a silver fern on a black background — the most popular alternative to the present flag — would align New Zealanders with anarchism, Islamic jihadists and 18th-century pirates, not to mention a well-known brand of insecticide.

Underneath Howse’s bluster, it was not hard to discern a note of anxiety over Britain’s flagging influence in the world, and in particular its inability to control events in its former dominions. For Englishmen who still pine for the days when the globe was largely coloured in British imperial pink, the prospect of another former colony cutting the link, even if only symbolically, is clearly too painful to contemplate.

Closer to home, National party prime minister John Key’s proposal for a referendum on the flag prompted a startled reaction for quite different reasons. Canberra columnist Michelle Grattan seemed taken aback because the new flag was being promoted by a centre-right government. Had the ALP suggested a referendum to change the Australian flag, Grattan wrote, it would have been denounced by the right for attacking a sacred national symbol. The Howard government had passed legislation to protect the existing flag. So how come Tony Abbott’s trans-Tasman counterpart was promoting something so radical?

The answer is complicated. For a start, it’s a big mistake to assume that because Australia and New Zealand have a lot in common, they are alike. The Abbott and Key governments may both be nominally centre-right, but centre-right governments in New Zealand tend to be less bound by conservative dogma than those in Canberra. That began in the 1960s when the National party government of Keith Holyoake resisted US pressure and made only a modest contribution — certainly compared with Australia — to the war effort in Vietnam. In the 1990s, National under Jim Bolger signed up to the former Labour government’s nuclear-free policy, which had caused a deep rift with both Australia and the US. The son of Irish Catholic immigrants, Bolger also tried, without success, to promote republicanism (still a non-starter in New Zealand, according to the polls). More recently, Key’s government passed legislation allowing gay marriage — anathema to many conservatives and blocked by the Abbott government, but accepted with equanimity in New Zealand.

Although Key’s government often stands accused of being driven by opportunism, it’s hard to see any obvious political upside accruing to National as a result of the proposed referendum. In fact, it’s almost a politics-free issue, since Key has multiparty support for the plan and has pushed the referendum back until after this September’s general election, thereby avoiding accusations that he’s trying to divert the country’s attention from more pressing issues. That postponement will also move it safely beyond the centenary of the 1915 Gallipoli landings, when those opposed to change — notably the Returned Services Association — will be able to play on patriotic sentiment and make it tougher for Key to get traction.

If anything, the referendum proposal carries more risks than potential gains for Key’s government. There has been no huge groundswell in favour of a new flag; on the contrary, opinion polls suggest New Zealanders are lukewarm at best.

Key’s proposition is simple. In essence, he argues that the Union Jack is an anachronism from a time when New Zealand was umbilically tied to the Mother Country. In the past 40 years — in fact since Britain effectively abandoned New Zealand to its fate in 1973 by joining Europe — it has learnt to make its own way in the world. In that time Britain has steadily receded in importance both as a trading partner and a cultural influence, while New Zealand has developed an increasingly confident sense of nationhood and identity. At the same time, the demographic make-up of the country has changed radically. Once overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, it’s now one of the world’s most cosmopolitan states: 40 per cent of the people living in Auckland and 25 per cent of the population overall were born overseas, mostly in Asia. Most of these new arrivals feel no bond with Britain.

The other argument advanced in favour of a new flag is that the existing one is too often confused with Australia’s. This can cut both ways, as Bob Hawke discovered when he visited Canada in 1984 and was greeted by a display of New Zealand flags fluttering gaily in the Ottawa breeze. But winning support in principle for a new flag will be the easy half of the battle. The real trouble will start if and when New Zealanders are asked to decide on an alternative design, because there are almost as many ideas about what a New Zealand flag should look like as there are New Zealanders.

Key’s personal preference, a stylised silver fern (a native plant) on a black background, is similar to the emblem worn by the All Blacks. The silver fern also adorns thousands of New Zealand war graves overseas. In opinion polls it’s consistently picked as the best of the many options, but people find reasons to oppose it too. One objection is that black is associated with death; another, that the silver fern could be mistaken for a white feather, a symbol of cowardice. But oddly enough, the possibility that such a flag might be associated with a brand of insect killer, which so exercised the Daily Telegraph’s Christopher Howse, isn’t seen as a compelling reason not to proceed.

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Karl du Fresne is a writer from the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.

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