Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Real and Complete goNZo Reasons for supporting the flag change debate

Adam Hunt at Public Address has made an excellent and reasonable comment on the Change the Flag campaign, which I hope to answer with equal skill. Why do I spend hours on the streets of Wellington, asking people to sign a non-binding referendum in record time in unpredictable weather, dodgy public space restrictions, and occasionally hostile responses?

Well, if truth be told, I'm mentally ill. It takes a certain madness to face insurmountable odds. Edmund Hillary should be locked up. You are absolutely right; there's no material gain by changing the cloth. This is something that can't be bought or sold. Sorry.

There are many noble causes to support in order to alleviate suffering. Wars, pollution, and poverty are nothing new and will exist for the foreseeable future. We're already on our Forth World War ( the Cold War was the Third one). Humans have been in shitting in their nests since the discovery of fire (patent not pending). Someone, somewhere is always starving. While we are striving to fix these woes, this is something that is achievable. If we want to.

Why on earth would anyone want to change the NZ flag? Well, let's look at it:

The top quarter is a Union Jack, or the Royal Union. This is comprised of the St George Cross of England

the Scottish flag

and Ireland's St. Patrick's Cross

Significant parts of Ireland are no longer held as British territory. Scotland has recently formed its own parliament. Even the English rugby teams wear St. George's Cross.

The Royal Union set on a blue background was the flag flown by the British colonial fleet, the stars differing on the colony. Fifteen stars for Cook Islands, six stars for Oz and four for us. At one time we were going to be a dependency of New South Wales and it made sense to have a similar, if inferior, flag to Australia's. Did you know the stars on our flag are different sizes? Did you care?

The New Zealand colonial ensign was used at sea and slowly adapted to land dwellings for lack of other identification. In 1902, when New Zealand was a dominion of the British Empire, it was officially adopted as the national flag. Hastily thrown together by British seamen in 1865, our current flag is a symbol of inertia.

This is not the first time an effort has been made to overcome this inertia. After WWII, the British Empire was in smoking ruins and England was getting out of the colonial business. When the Empire fell in 1950, New Zealanders were questioning the design of our flag. In the 1970s, renowned artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (Kawa Kawa toilets) gifted the koru flag to New Zealand as a stimulus for this debate. Ask an old Kiwi and they'll tell you.

Flags are important at all sorts of times and not neccessarily at times of crises. Yes, the peaceful swastika was hijacked by some hateful ideas. Does that make it inherently evil, or was it something to do with the humans who let it happen at the time? There is a simple way to avoid the fervent nationalistic zeal that can bring symbols into disrepute. Just don't do it. Seeing as our combined miltary forces couldn't hold back a surprise attack by our nearest neighbours, the penguins in Antarctica, there is little for us to fear our flag becoming a symbol of global conquest.

Flags can be tribal things, but they also denote context and identity. More Kiwi backpackers put a silver fern or, well... a kiwi on their backpack to identify their starting point. The NZ flag? No way. There are some places in the world where mistaken identity can be fatal. Hey, we didn't vote for Bob Howard.

An old friend of mine likes taking a barge down some French river every year. Naturally, they fly the NZ flag to identify their vessel. "Fucking Brits!" yell the locals. "Fucking Kiwis!" she yells back. Immediately the locals lighten up. "Sorry about the bombs!"

Boating is a damned good reason not to have the silver fern on a black background as our national flag. On the waters, you wouldn't see it at in full moon, let alone a dark and stormy night. That's why pirates had black and white flags.

I bloody hate the NZ Flag logo. It has the sterility and moral backbone of a Nike swoosh. Nice if you're trying to sell a brand, but I agree with Adam Hunt. Kiwis can't be branded. While the silver fern is good for sports teams, and looks flash next to an adidas logo, it's not so good, for example, for our military. It is mistaken for a white feather (coward symbol) by some people. Maybe these people need to be properly educated. It's their fault. We can educate them over the gunfire.

Just as well, then, that this logo thing is merely a reference point for the debate, not some definitive choice.

Instead of just bitching about other symbols, I considered a question. If I didn't relate to the existing flag or the logo substitute on offer, what did I think would be better? So I put this together, based on the hills, the white cloud and insurmountable blue. The hills are in the wind. Hat tip Hundertwasser.

But hey, that's just my opinion. Jeffy James has got a nice one. So has Nick Wood of Rosehill College, Auckland. More designs are popping up the whole time. There are about four million Kiwis here and more abroad. Do you think between all of us, we could find something better, something that more accurately represents who we are?

Flags are dynamic things, as the evolution of the Royal Union flag shows. Hell, even the Yanks have changed their flag on numerous occasions, even if it is to add a star or 37. Before fellow Commonwealth member Canada changed its flag in 1965, 6000 design submissions were received. It is a good example of how common sense and general knowledge can help us come to the best possible answer. I hope all Kiwis take their opinions and stick 'em on paper and send them in for a go. One of us has the perfect flag, and it will be interesting to find out what it looks like.

Canada was "almost unique" in changing the flag without significant constitutional upheaval, although my late English teacher Mr Guerin would have berated me for poor word usage. If New Zealand has to wait for a revolution or civil war before looking at changing a national symbol, we'll be waiting another 150 years or more. If some people think referenda are expensive, it's certainly cheaper than civil unrest! The flag debate is not about republicanism, although there are some supporters of flag change who are republicans. When New Zealand considers this subject later on, we'll have enough to discuss among us without having to ponder a new flag too.

Machiavelli once said that one change leads the way for others. If this NZ Flag referendum is successful in motivating our representatives to actually do something, it will set a precedent for all future referenda. The NZ Flag referendum has learnt from previous attempts. The question is concise and unambiguous, as opposed to the Norm Withers petition. It is not a direct attack on our representatives' jobs, unlike Margaret Robertson's one. As far as partisan political topics go, this is pretty neutral ground. So what is the big tricky question we want the permission of our government to ask in this year's election?

"Should the design of the New Zealand flag be changed?"

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?