We need a flag that really represents us - and that's not black

Last updated 05:00 18/02/2014
Prime minister John Key has expressed his preference to change the NZ flag to the silver fern.

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OPINION: The latest Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll shows fewer than two in five Kiwis want to keep the current flag. Just don't replace it with something black, asks Grant Stevenson.

As New Zealanders, we struggle with symbols of national identity. We have an outdated flag, an endangered flightless bird, a national day involving controversy and our national colour is black.

We shun joyful public patriotic flag-waving fervour. The Americans invented it, the Aussies have adopted it, even the Brits dress in quaint hats for Last Night of the Proms.

But we Kiwis are a self-effacing lot, heads down, pecking around in the pitch black. 

Even our silver fern turns its face to the forest floor. Often, a country's film industry reflects its cultural identity. Recently this newspaper published the names of Kiwi-made movies readers liked best. The list showed a dark, brooding nation of mayhem, revenge and violence. Once Were Warriors came in at number one. It seems film-making is what really became of the broken hearted. The exception was Goodbye Pork Pie.

At about the same time, the Aussie films were far more joyful. Crocodile Dundee; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; The Dish; The Castle - these are quintessentially Australian films - and guess what; they actually show people enjoying their unique identity. They were fun.

I notice the Aussies truly rejoice in Anzac Day too. After paying their important respects in the morning, they socially celebrate their hard-won freedom later in the day.

Even the Aussie anthem lyrics kick off sports matches on a positive note: 

''Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.'' It unashamedly proclaims, albeit in somewhat twee language, their ''land abounds in nature's gifts of beauty rich and rare''.

Advance Australia Fair may sound like support for their former White Australia policy, but at least their anthem is a voice of joyful aspiration.

In contrast, God has to defend New Zealand from the shafts of strife and war. Don't read the later verses, it gets more depressing. God also has to defend us from dissension, envy, hate, corruption, dishonour and shame. All very worthy, but hardly joyful. If the black flag Prime Minister John Key has run up the flagpole for debate is adopted, we should fly it at half-mast.

Black flags adorning any public space for a national celebration would show a country in mourning.

Some years ago it was suggested our Olympic athletes' singlets should change from black. That sparked a furore, proving black is embedded in our national psyche as the colour of our sporting excellence.

Yes, our black uniform upholds a long and proud tradition, but we are proud of the All Whites too, and marching into the arena under a matching white flag is hardly the way to begin ferocious combat. We don't need to match sports uniform with flag.Making the flag black just to align with their uniforms shows a lack of courage to address the bigger issue. We need to confront the darker side we have identified with for too long.

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The colour black comes with inescapable baggage.

Traditional funeral services use black to dampen mood, suppress celebration and take death (and life) seriously. More recently, funerals are moving more from mourning a death to celebrating a life, and colour is being introduced. Black balloons won't brighten your child's birthday party. That takes colour too.

Yes the black tradition must continue on the sports field. But our national anthem needs to shed its misery and inspire a more positive future, and colour needs to elbow its way into our debate on the flag.

We live in a vibrant green land set in a vivid blue/green ocean under a clear blue sky.Surely that is something a flag designer can work with.

- Grant Stevenson specialises in strategy, facilitation and communications in Wellington.

- The Dominion Post

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