Editorial: Drape the flag debate carefully

Last updated 09:47 31/01/2014

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OPINION: New Zealanders really dislike having rebranding gratuitously foisted upon us. Why wouldn't we? We've been assailed by it.

Uncountable Government departments, firms, organisations and products have changed identities with what seems greater frequency, and less success, than Dr Who.

It's not just irritating, it's bewildering. We've lost track of how many outfits we've lost track of.

There needs to be a good reason for substantial identity changes. Something more significant than boredom, more trustworthy than fashionability and certainly more noble than trying to outrun a tainted reputation.

Even by those standards, the rationale for changing a nation's - this nation's - flag must be especially compelling. It shouldn't even be a finely judged decision but one that is emphatically and confidently embraced by a substantial majority.

Having said all that, we're just about ready to change ours. We've been getting there, inexorably. The existing flag might be said to represent an increasingly distant past but it doesn't particularly distinguish us among other countries and, far more importantly, falls short as an evocation of our own, internal, sense of identity.

Losing the Union Jack component would not represent a gratuitous insult to the UK.

The connection New Zealand retains with its British past will not be strengthened by the inert, kind of grudging, acceptance of stale symbolism. Anyway, a flag cannot be all things to all people. What matters most is what it evokes in the country it serves.

Prime Minister John Key is considering a referendum on the issue as part of the general election, though this is only after the media put the issue to him. He's not approaching the idea with asset-sale vigour.

Such a significant step does need the measured test that a referendum would provide, rather than leaving it to the process of a law change that would deliver what people would regard as a "politicians' flag".

The next issue is what the alternative should be. Mr Key clearly favours presenting the public with a single, clear alternative, rather than a bunch of options.

Potential designs have long existed and have been flapping around on the edges of public consciousness. The silver fern does have a significant support base - Mr Key himself prefers it - though alternatives like the koru, or retention of the Southern Cross stars, do too.

It's already election year. That might leave time enough for a holy huddle of our representatives to rustle up their favourite and whack it in front of the populace on a take-it or leave-it basis, but it's liable to leave people feeling, with some justification, that the process has been a disrespectful one of unseemly haste.

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There's no need for that. A far better idea would be to formalise the intention to come up with an alternative proposal, go through a more considered, dare we say stately, pace of public consultation, and have a proposal that people have had a chance to consider for more than just a short while to take to a referendum during the 2017 election.

Too slow? Only if the approach is "how hard can it be?" Entirely the wrong approach for this context.

- The Southland Times

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