As citizens of a small nation still emerging from a postcolonial adolescence, New Zealanders are proud of the clutch of symbols recognised as their own. The plump, flightless kiwi bird, the fearsome Maori haka and the silver fern – worn by the black-clad rugby players who perform it – have been embraced by New Zealanders of all backgrounds in the 170 years since their foundational treaty was signed between the native Maori and British settlers.
But what should be the country’s paramount national symbol – the flag – inspires much less affection. A navy blue ensign with the Union Flag on the upper left and four red stars of the Southern Cross to the right, the flag is increasingly viewed as an embarrassing colonial relic that will inevitably be dispensed with, although nobody is sure quite how.
In recent weeks that uncertain process has gathered pace, with a newspaper campaign for change prompting an unprecedented public spit-balling of alternatives, and a national debate on vexing questions of politics, identity and design. How does a country go about rebranding itself? The shortcomings of the current flag are obvious. It has another country’s flag in the corner, and looks very much like the flags of 20 other Commonwealth territories – most problematically, that of big brother and rival Australia, which simply substitutes New Zealand’s four red stars for six similarly configured white ones. The most likely replacements come with their own problems. New Zealand’s equivalent to Canada’s maple leaf – a shining example of successful flag redesign – is the silver fern on a black background: New Zealand’s sporting colours as worn by generations of Olympians and All Blacks. While the silver fern is already a de facto national ensign, some have noted its unsuitability for use as a formal flag. From a distance the fern resembles a white feather, a potential symbol of cowardice or surrender. The colour scheme is more suited to pirates’ sails. Others feel that the adoption of the silver fern would represent the triumph of New Zealand’s sports culture over all other aspects of national life. Another popular alternative is the koru, a stylised Maori design representing the unfurling fern frond. But a flag must be a symbol of national unity, and the essentially Maori character of the koru – also used in the Maori sovereignty flag – may prove problematic for a multicultural society. For his part, recently elected Prime Minister John Key has largely stayed out of the debate, saying change is not on the government’s agenda (although when asked by a television host to draw his vision of an alternative, he doodled a rudimentary silver fern). Key’s coyness is probably explained by his predecessor Helen Clark’s revelation that officials cautioned her during a previous redesign campaign to stand aloof until a clear mandate for change emerged. An unsuccessful effort to tinker with the flag would only damage its important status as a unifying symbol, she was told.
Clark, a shrewd political operator who is now the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, herself backs a third option: a re-tailored version of the current flag, shorn of the Union Jack yet likely to appease traditionalists, featuring a red Southern Cross on navy, flanked by red stripes at either side. Reflecting Clark’s knack for elegant compromise, the flag is unexpectedly striking – and offers continuity with a past that New Zealand sometimes appears overeager to slough off. It is rapidly gaining support.