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Monday, 20 October 2014

Nation building through flag change


Parliament was formally sworn in today, and the "Speech from the Throne" will follow tomorrow. It's likely that the re-elected Government of John Key will formally commit to passing the legislation for two referendums on New Zealand's flag, to be completed by the end of this parliamentary term. There will be campaigns by both sides, and it won't come as much of a surprise to anyone that I'm involved in the "Yes" side, for change.

A debate that has sporadically cropped up in the last forty years* may finally come to a resolution. It is yet another step in New Zealand's long road to nationhood, an assertion of our independence and identity to the world. I fully understand that many - especially those who have actually served for New Zealand - feel a legitimate sense of connection to the current flag. It would be foolish for anyone supporting change to deny these strong feelings. Those sort of feelings are actually exactly what supporters of change are trying to engender - a shared sense of nationhood, not one that only appeals to one segment of the population.

I realise these reasons are going to be shunned, as they have been often in the past, by the political elite. They will protest there are always more important issues. Child poverty. Climate change. Unemployment. Healthcare. Diversifying the economy. Dealing to ISIS. No-one is claiming any of these issues are more important to the flag, and it's a false dichotomy to claim that debating the flag means any of these issues can't be addressed. It's simply convenient for some segments of our elite to claim that it is.

They will argue it's simply a distraction to enable John Key to push other issues. Or that it's more about the Prime Minister's legacy than a genuine desire to continue the process of nation building (I'm fairly sure from his first speech on the issue it's a mix of both - but then, so what?). Or that it's a waste of taxpayers' money, for a change the public hasn't asked for. These arguments always crop up - it's the context that changes. I remember very vividly the same claims being flung at Helen Clark over the Supreme Court, claims that were untrue.

What they emphasise is that opposition to change, outside of those who have actually served for New Zealand, is largely negative and reactionary. It will focus on proposed alternative flags, cringing as it does at the fact that we could replace a flag designed by someone who apparently never even visited New Zealand** to a flag designed by one of us. I'm confident we'll find a design that appeals and connects to many - and hopefully a majority - of New Zealanders.

We're only talking about New Zealand's national flag. Some may act like we're committing a massive historical or religious disservice. It's worth pointing out to them that everyone still has the right to fly whatever flag they damn well choose. If we need the Union Jack on our flag to remind us we were once a British colony (of course, we don't - the fact I'm writing in English about our Parliamentary democracy shows otherwise), I'd suggest there's deeper problems. And let's be honest, a large part of the motivation for changing New Zealand's current flag is that it really isn't ours. It's the British Blue Ensign.

So I'm going to be campaigning for change over the next two or so years. There are plenty of potential pitfalls - the biggest being division over the alternative flag. This is a positive campaign, and with a strong campaign I'm sure we can earn the support of enough New Zealanders to bring it about.

*The first attempt at having a policy on the issue was a remit that went up - and failed - at Labour's 1973 conference. Oddly, Norman Kirk was previously (while in opposition) in favour of adding a Kiwi to the flag.

**Albert Markham Hastings, the guy who designed the current flag, was stationed at Sydney with the Royal Navy, but I can't find any record that he visited New Zealand.