Our national identity crisis

Last updated 05:00 27/10/2014

FLAG FALL: Can we find a flag that unites Maori and non-Maori in New Zealand?

Janis Barbour said her flag incorporated the two flags we already have - one symbolising British history, the other symbolising Maori culture.

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With the announcement of a two-stage flag referendum, New Zealand's hunt for a new flag has begun in earnest. In the coming months Kiwis in their thousands will undoubtedly submit their flag designs to a flag committee who will face the unenviable task of wading through the sea of submissions to pick out the diamonds in the sand.

As the flag committee embarks on this mammoth task, it is likely to retain at the forefront of its considerations the identity crisis that stalks the collective mind of New Zealand's largest tribe, Ngati Pakeha. The importance of Ngati Pakeha's vote in the upcoming referendums will be pivotal, indeed, without its support, the 'change vote' is doomed to fail. But courting the vote of Ngati Pakeha will be a complex task for the flag committee. 

Without a distinct leader or voice, Ngati Pakeha is usually too busy to stop and contemplate its own identity, but occasionally it does speak with a clarity of voice that is both surprising and that cannot be ignored. 

As the flag committee tip-toes its way towards selecting a collection of possible alternative flags, it will be trying to find symbols that connect with Ngati Pakeha's ill-defined identity - not an easy task. 

So what kind of symbols might the flag committee be leaning towards in its selection of alternative designs? There are a number of puzzles the flag committee will have to solve if it is to find a winning design for New Zealanders to vote on, and potentially the biggest obstacle will be the 'ethnicity puzzle'. 

To capture the support of Ngati Pakeha voters, the flag committee will be looking for designs that employ symbols that are inclusive by nature. This creates an uphill (but not impossible) task for flag designers employing Maori symbols within their flag designs. Without being divisive, the flag committee will be wary of selecting flag designs whose Maori symbolism could be a 'turn off' to the average Ngati Pakeha voter. 

If the symbols employed in the finalist flag designs are 'too Maori', Ngati Pakeha voters are likely to rally around the incumbent flag design in droves, fiercely defending the closest thing they have to a Ngati Pakeha flag. However, if a flag design can be found that bridges this identity conundrum, by employing symbols that appeal to both Ngati Pakeha and Maori, the ranks of the 'change vote' are likely to swell.

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To its credit, the existing, incumbent New Zealand flag design has lasted for over one hundred years. The Ngati Pakeha tribe knows this and is quietly quite proud of it. 

Ngati Pakeha have grown fond of this colonial anachronism, and the idea of stepping through the minefield of a flag change tends to put us off, a task put in the 'too hard basket', left for a future generation to knock heads over. In previous years we have been able to laugh off would-be challengers to the flag, smirking at the wannabe flag designs, a collection of aspiring design motifs who tried unsuccessfully to connect with our nuanced Ngati Pakeha palates.

But now, Ngati Pakeha are stuck in the headlights of our own identity crisis. The politicians have told us we can't keep going on like this, behaving like adults but still living under Mum and Dad's name. What's worse, the opinion polls tell us that many of our Ngati Pakeha brothers actually agree with the politicians. 

We haven't been able to agree on a new flag design yet, but many of us are starting to say it could be a good thing to have our own flag, if we could only find a design that connects with us and unites Ngati Pakeha and Maori.

This is a case of arrested development on a national scale, with a bemused international audience looking on. Can little Zealandia finally find its voice, or will it return to the safety and comfort of its old clothes?

Can the flag committee help us find our voice? I hope so. If we get this right, we will become stronger as a nation. Get it wrong, and we'll be stuck, way back in 1902, waiting until another leader summons the courage to address our one hundred year itch.

What would you like to see on New Zealand's flag? Leave a comment below or click the contribute button to find out more about this reader assignment.

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