Let our location dictate new-look flag

19:29, Oct 30 2014

There is an easy solution to coming up with a new flag for New Zealand, writes STEVE MAHAREY.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time

You understand why you came this way

Cause the truth you might be running from is so small.

But it is as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day.

(From Southern Cross by Crosby, Stills and Nash.)


It needs to be explained why the lyrics of a song penned by an American folk-rock group can be used to begin a discussion about a new New Zealand flag - apart from the fact that my American-born wife who came this way from across the Pacific on a two-person yacht alerted me to them.

The explanation is twofold. First, New Zealand is a land of immigrants. Everyone got here from somewhere else. The lyrics capture this.

Second, if there is anything that defines New Zealanders it is their location on the edge of the world. The first, as Crosby, Stills and Nash say, to feel "the promise of a coming day".

So what about the New Zealand flag? It has to change. It was last changed in 1902 amidst the pomp and patriotism of the South African War and it is time to do it again.

Prime Minister John Key has confirmed New Zealanders are likely to vote late next year on a best alternative flag from a selection chosen by a committee following a public submission process.

The current flag has a royal blue background representing the clear sky and the blue sea surrounding us. The stars of the Southern Cross emphasise the country's location in the South Pacific Ocean. The Union Jack recognises New Zealand's historical origins as a British colony and dominion.

There are many arguments in favour of changing the flag and many designs on offer. But what seems to most obviously be driving the whole debate is the Union Jack in the first quarter of the flag. It links us to Britain. It makes it clear we were a colony. It reminds us that for much or our history we went where Britain told us to go.

And it is completely irrelevant to the New Zealand of the 21st century. While the majority of New Zealanders can still trace their origins back to Britain, the makeup of the population is changing fast. Over the next 50 years the face of New Zealand will be more Asian, more Pasifika, more Maori. For some time now New Zealand has been positioning itself as part of the Asia-Pacific and as an independent nation with its own point of view.

None of this represents disrespect for Britain or the Queen as our Head of State. It simply says there is a new New Zealand taking shape that needs to rethink the relevance of its national symbols.

What isn't relevant is the Union Jack. What is relevant is location.

This is why I favour a very simple change to the flag New Zealand currently has. Remove the Union Jack and reposition the Southern Cross.

This design, perhaps, allows all sides to the flag debate to meet in the middle. It retains most of what New Zealanders have become familiar with while removing the element that means nothing to a growing number of New Zealanders.

But there is more to the argument. The flag tells the story of a nation surrounded by sea and sky. A South Pacific nation that is always one day ahead of the rest of the world.

Recently I have been involved in discussions about the New Zealand story. Many will have seen the magnificent video that has been produced by the government depicting New Zealand as a place of "Open Spaces, Open Hearts, Open Minds". Anyone who sees it is made proud of their country.

But, for me, there is something missing that is essential to what it means to be a New Zealander. At heart we are all here because we or our forebears travelled from somewhere else.

They came a very long way to an isolated part of the world and that has helped shape what we are today. We are a small but surprisingly influential nation. Out here on the edge of the world we have developed our unique way of seeing the world. That's what happens when you are on your own. It breeds a culture that is not only on the edge but also edgy. We not only lead but do it differently.

None of the other flag designs on offer tell this story. The fern is unique and is already widely used to promote sports teams, corporations and tourism; the Tino Rangatiratanga Maori flag belongs to those who got here first and should continue to be used; the koru flies proudly on the tail of Air New Zealand planes; other designs do not tell the full story.

The Southern Cross does. It guided all of us here. It locates us in the world. It tells us where we are and who we are - all of us, no matter what we left behind.

One last reason to adopt the Southern Cross. Sooner or later Australians are going to get around to becoming a republic. Their flag will change. They need to look across the Tasman and see that we own the Southern Cross already.

Steve Maharey is the vice-chancellor of Massey University and a former Labour cabinet minister.

The Press