A black flag is the colour of death
What is a flag? Like so many of the things that go into the making of a state, flags have their origins in war.
Large swathes of cloth bearing simple, easily-recognised devices, made it possible for an army's identity to be determined from a considerable distance.
Those who marched beneath these fluttering banners were, accordingly, bound to its fortunes.
While their flag flew the soldiers knew there was reason to go on fighting; when it fell, or was hauled down, they knew the battle was lost.
The Prime Minister, John Key, has suggested that the time is right for New Zealanders to consider changing their flag.
Key appears to subscribe to the widely-held belief that the current design lacks distinction and fails to identify New Zealand as a unique and independent nation of the South Pacific.
On January 29, he raised the possibility of holding a referendum on the issue in which the current New Zealand flag is pitted against an alternative of the Government's choosing.
Key's preferred replacement is the silver fern flag so beloved of All Black supporters.
The first thing to note about the prime minister's suggestion is that so far, he has given just one alternative to the status quo.
This raises questions about the amount of thought the prime minister has given the subject. The most famous and successful example of the flag-changing process, Canada's 1965 adoption of its universally-admired maple leaf flag, left the final decision to a multi-party parliamentary committee.
In terms of speed and simplicity the Canadian model has much to recommend it. But if New Zealanders are determined to have the final say, then I'd advise adopting the following three-stage process:
First Stage: a special multi-party parliamentary committee invites public submissions from which it produces a short-list of three alternative designs.
Second Stage: a referendum is conducted asking New Zealanders to rank the three alternatives in order of preference.
Third Stage: the most preferred design is "run off" against the present New Zealand flag in a final, binding, referendum.
Such a process would almost certainly produce the following three contenders: the Tino Rangatiratanga or Maori sovereignty flag; Kyle Lockwood's graceful combination of the silver fern and the southern cross; and the "All Black" flag featuring the silver fern on a sable field.
If the silver fern flag emerged as the most preferred option, I would vote for the existing New Zealand flag.
Black has always conferred a palpable sense of power and menace to our national rugby team, but making black the dominant colour of our national flag would be a singularly ill-omened decision.
In war, flying a black flag warned one's enemy that no prisoners would be taken. Much the same bloodthirsty intent became attached to the pirates' skull-and-crossbones flag.
As the international banner of Anarchism, the black flag is burdened with many negative historical associations. Across the world, black is also recognised as the colour of death and mourning.
Combining as it does the two symbols most commonly associated with New Zealand, along with the red, white and blue of the existing flag, it is difficult to fault Kyle Lockwood's much-admired design.
It compares very favourably with Canada's maple leaf flag in terms of both elegance and simplicity and would quite probably gain the latter's instant and near-universal acceptance.
My own preference, however, would be for the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.
As a design, it, too, is a masterful combination of simplicity and elegance. But looking good is by no means all it has going for it.
Designed by Hiraina Marsden, Jan Smith and Linda Munn in 1990, its adaptation of the traditional Maori koru motif and its use of Maoridom's red, white and black colours has imbued this flag with a primal dynamism, a sense of somehow being "right", that led to its instant adoption by most of Maoridom as well as many Pakeha.
The Tino Rangatiratanga flag also has the virtue of having emerged, naturally, out of our recent history.
It now flies over the Auckland harbour bridge on Waitangi Day and has become the symbol of that part of the New Zealand nation which yearns to put the dubious legacy of British imperialism behind them.
It is difficult to imagine a more potent gesture of Pakeha goodwill, or of this nation's determination to unequivocally proclaim its bicultural identity, than voting to adopt the flag of Maori sovereignty as the banner of us all.