UPDATE: 23 September 2015 - Following the controversy surrounding the selection of 4 final designs for a potential new flag, a fifth flag has been added into the mix to be put forward in an upcoming referendum. An online petition saw more than 50,000 people vote for the inclusion of the so-called Red Flag and political wrangling has seen the government cave in to social media pressure.
The NZ$26 million flag for New Zealand – colonial anachronism or proud symbol of shared heritage and history?
In a competition designed to give New Zealander’s the option of choosing a new flag, four finalists have been chosen by a committee from 40 contenders and over 10,000 original entries.
The reason for holding a competition and ultimately a referendum to replace the original design from 1902 is because of the presence on the current flag of the Union Jack, which is now seen as somewhat dated as well as too indistinct from the flag of New Zealand’s great rival, Australia.
The four designs will be ranked in the first referendum due in November and then the winner will go head to head with the current flag in a second referendum in March 2016.
Given that a recent poll showed that 53% said they did not support a change and with opposition criticism of the cost of the referendums, estimated at $26 million, it is perhaps not surprising that the whole debate has been somewhat muted in New Zealand.
Inspiration for designs
The designs have, in the main, drawn their inspiration from the Silver Fern which has a tradition as a national symbol dating back to the 1850’s. Perhaps most famously, it is also a national symbol traditionally worn by the country’s sports teams and, in particular, the All Blacks, New Zealand’s famous, and fearsome, rugby team. The current team captain, Richie McCaw, has backed plans to change the flag saying he’d be “more than happy” to see a design incorporating the silver fern.
Some supporters have said that they believe there is a great opportunity for the country to create a globally identifiable symbol that will boost the country globally, both economically and awareness. The example is used for how Canada changed its flag in the 1960’s to a simple Maple Leaf design which has now become an iconic symbol of Canada.
However, one group particularly opposed to changing the flag is the Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) which has suggested that voters should mark their protest at the referendum by writing on their ballot papers ‘I vote for the current flag’. The current RSA President, BJ Clark said “the current flag reflects our Kiwi spirit and values, and has done so for more than a century."
Andrew Fyfe, the designer of one of the four entries (the black and white flag depicting the koru, a spiral shape that is meant to be based on an unfurling fern which is also an important symbol in Maori art) said that “New Zealand has changed a great deal over the last hundred years and will continue to do so. I was thinking not just about what New Zealand means to me now, but what it means for my kids and what it is going to mean to theirs”
One of the other designers, Kyle Lockwood perhaps summed up the motivation for designing a new flag best when he said “New Zealand is a small nation at the bottom of the world and most of us are pretty humble people who don’t like talking that much about ourselves. When designing a flag, you have to put all that behind you and say, okay, what will make the world recognise us, what will make Kiwis proud to carry it and what will bring a tear to your eye when you see it on the podium?”
Changing national character
So does potentially having a new flag mean that the national character of New Zealand is changing? The traditional European dominance of the population is slowly reducing, reflecting the rise of the Asian economies and the increase in immigration from them. In the 12 years between the 2001 census and the 2013 one, the number of people claiming Asian origin rose from 6% to nearly 12%. With China as a dominant trade partner as well it is perhaps not surprising that the country is keen to forge a more forward-looking identity that reflects the increasing importance of the rapidly growing Asian economies.
So if you are planning on emigrating to New Zealand, it seems there is a reasonable possibility that you will be starting a new life in a country which is coming to grips with a new national symbol that is distinctly local, has no echoes of a colonial past and, most importantly, is markedly different to their fierce rivals over the Tasman sea.