The reason more important than the change
At the height of the Boer War, New Zealanders celebrated the heroism and abilities of our troopers. There was an outpouring of patriotism, and various New Zealand flags flew around the country. The trouble was, it wasn’t quite clear which was the official flag. The Government was embarrassed by the confusion, so in 1902 it made the Blue Ensign with the Southern Cross the official flag. This is the flag we know today. Whether it remains our official flag is up to us.
While I’d argue that the lead-up to the flag referendum has been pretty uninspiring, we should all vote because the flag is an important statement about who we are as a nation—who we want to be. This year we’ll vote on which one of the five alternative flags could be our flag, and next year we’ll vote on whether the winner is better than the current flag.
At this first vote, we should ask which of the alternatives represents us best. This will be a personal judgement, but we should be thinking about what it means to belong in New Zealand, to identify with this place and participate in this society, and which flag does the best job of capturing this essence. We also have to apply a ‘real life’ test—would we be proud to see our chosen flag flying on Government buildings, on the shoulders of soldiers, and on travellers’ backpacks?
These are deep questions, and they haven’t really been tapped in the lead-up to this first vote. That’s one reason I think it’s been uninspiring, and it’s not the fault of the official Flag Consideration Panel, but the short timeframe they were given.
The other reason inspiration is lacking is that none of the arguments for change so far seem as good as the ones made in the past. Think about the Boer War example, when confusion plus an outbreak of national pride created fertile ground for change. Earlier, we adopted our first official flag, the United Tribes Flag, in 1834 when we needed a flag in order for ships to trade internationally and as a way to foster a unified M?ori identity. And we changed that flag in 1840, to the Union Jack, when our sovereignty changed.
Next year, we’ll all have to ask whether there’s a compelling reason to change the current flag. For example, when the Prime Minister says that we need a new flag because we’re a “modern, independent nation,” does that resonate in the same way as the reasons given in 1834, 1840, or 1902?
There’s been widespread concern about the cost of the referendum, and I’d guess that means that not enough people are convinced there’s a compelling reason for change. But even if that’s what you think, there’s a compelling reason to participate. Whether you want change or not, whether you care or not, the referendum is happening and it matters. It’s time to vote.