The New Zealand Flag: An Exercise in Legacy and Nation Building

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John Key and the National Party government in New Zealand are pressing ahead this year with a series of two referenda affording New Zealanders the opportunity to change the national flag. Firstly, I am not disputing that there is a need for New Zealand to reflect upon its imperial past and its relation to modern-day NZ and, if that results in a desire to remove the Union Jack from the flag, so be it. However, if this is the motivation behind the move to change of flag, then why does the current debate not also include other symbols of our country’s colonial past: the Queen on the currency, our retention of the monarchy and membership of the Commonwealth? I suggest the answer to that lies in the fact that the current flag debate is not being driven by the New Zealand people but by Prime Minister John Key, a confirmed and strident constitutional monarchist. While Key is desirous of the political legacy which will be his if he can lead the country to a new flag, he wants to do this without jeopardising future invitations to play golf and hunt grouse with Prince William at Balmoral. He wants the freedom and simplicity of a separation without the acrimony and legal wranglings of a divorce.

The referenda are being met with resistance by many, most vocally so far by the RSA, who highlight the ill-timing with 2015 being the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli, which has been marked all over the country in commemorative events. Many servicemen see the suggestion of a change of flag as an insult to all those who fought and died for it in both World Wars and other international conflicts (http://rsa.org.nz/News/RSAOpposesTimingofFlagReferendum.aspx). There has also been some discussion of the order of the referenda, the first voting for an alternative design followed by a second to choose between that and the current flag. While for many it would be a more sensible option to ask whether people actually wanted change first, there is also logic in offering an alternative first. However, this option, chosen by Key, certainly weighs the dice in favour of a final ‘yes’ vote

Questions have also been raised over the cost of such an exercise. The referenda themselves will cost over $26 million dollars and this doesn’t include the costs incurred in implementing the changes, including replacing all official flags and military uniforms. Many feel that the flag is not a priority when the country remains in deficit and would benefit from the money being injected into health or education instead. In fact, there seems to be little desire amongst the public for the flag change at all. A recent poll measured the desire for change down from 40% last year to just 25% now (http://m.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11441353). And yet John Key charges on regardless.

This is just the latest display of the Prime Minister’s growing arrogance and off-hand dismissal of the issues which actually matter to the people of New Zealand; be it his refusal to address concerns over the GCSB Bill, his determination to ignore the results of a Citizens’ Initiated Referendum on asset sales, or his outright and continued denial of the Auckland housing crisis. His personal desire to be the man remembered for changing the New Zealand flag seems to override all other considerations in this issue.

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Key is personally very much advocating the inclusion of the silver fern in the new flag, although he has recently backed away from having this on the black background in an attempt to distance it from any comparison to the flag of Isis. And this raises another issue in the flag debate. Key has stressed in interviews the importance of flags in the building and representing of national identity, linked to ideas of belonging and patriotism. He cites the example of US citizens proudly wearing stars and stripes t-shirts and baseball caps and has a desire to see New Zealanders doing so with the silver fern. But nationalism and patriotism are invariably tied up with feelings of exclusion of others, so how much does the timing of this current debate reflect levels of insecurity and fear in today’s world? Could the flag debate be not only symptomatic of our leader’s desire to have his name written into the country’s history, but at the same time a futile attempt to circle the wagons of nationhood to protect from the perceived outside influences and dangers of this truly global world.

Links
John Key Defends Cost of Flag Referendums
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11349998

Video – John Key on Changing the NZ Flag
http://www.newstalkzb.co.nz/on-air/auckland/leighton-smith-show/video/zbtv-john-key-on-changing-the-nz-flag/

15th May 2015

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