Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia
March 11, 2014
For more than a hundred years the New Zealand flag has served us well, and we in turn have served it well.
It has given us an identity.
We have given it our loyalty.
But the current flag represents the thinking by and about a young country moving from the 1800s to the 1900s. A time before commercial air travel. A time when we had less of a role in the Pacific, and a time before Asia registered in our consciousness. That was a time before the rise of superpowers and before we had forged a formidable reputation on the battlefields of Europe. It was prior to the first tour by the New Zealand Rugby Union to the UK, and when our forebears thought their colonial protector would always be there for their descendants.
When you think about it, those who had a hand in the flag’s design did well to include symbols that have endured for more than a century.
But it’s my belief, and I think one increasingly shared by many New Zealanders, that the design of the New Zealand flag symbolises a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed.
The flag remains dominated by the Union Jack in a way that we ourselves are no longer dominated by the United Kingdom.
We retain a strong and important constitutional link to the monarchy and I get no sense of any groundswell of support to let that go. Nor could we or would we dispose of the cultural legacy which gave us a proud democracy, a strong legal system and a rich artistic heritage.
Each of these we have evolved and interpreted in our own way as an independent nation.
I am proposing that we take one more step in the evolution of modern New Zealand by acknowledging our independence through a new flag…
Back in 1965, Canada changed its flag from one that, like ours, also had the Union Jack in the corner, and replaced it with the striking symbol of modern Canada that all of us recognise and can identify today.
Fifty years on, I can’t imagine many Canadians would, if asked, choose to go back to the old flag…
That old flag represented Canada as it was once, rather than as it is now. Similarly, I think our flag represents us as we were once, rather than as we are now…
We have a lot to do, a lot of ideas, and a lot to talk about, so the Cabinet has agreed that we should look at the steps that New Zealand would need to follow if it were to formally consider whether to change the flag. However, we will leave the real work until the next term of Parliament.
That also means that it will be under our existing flag that we will commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landings.
At dawn on April 25, 2015, here, and on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and at New Zealand diplomatic posts around the world, we will lower to half-mast the same flag under which our forefathers fought so valiantly, so far away, a hundred years ago.
It is under the existing flag that we will remember the sacrifices made by New Zealanders in battle, and the sacrifices made by their families.
I do not under-estimate the significance of the flag to New Zealand’s servicemen and women and their families, but being respectful of our history does not lock us permanently in the past…
Those values and our commitment to uphold them will not be compromised or eroded in any way by a change of flag. From time to time, countries do change their flags. If we do it, we won’t be the first and we won’t be the last…
If we choose well, it will become internationally recognisable in a way that our current flag is not, despite more than a hundred years of use…
As we consider alternative designs, there might be some people who want a stronger representation of our Maori heritage, or of our flora and fauna. The colours we might choose to represent us are, right now, far from certain.
Long decades of sweat and effort by our sportsmen and women in many codes over countless competitions give the silver fern on a black background a distinctive and uniquely New Zealand identity, and a head start in our national consciousness.
For example, it’s our silver fern, rather than our flag, that’s etched in the crosses marking the final resting place of all New Zealanders who are interred in Commonwealth War Graves overseas.
Interestingly, it’s the maple leaf that’s etched in the crosses of Canada’s fallen in those same cemeteries…
Most important, I think, is that the designs from which we eventually choose are unique, confident and enduring.
We want a design that says “New Zealand” in the same way that the maple leaf says “Canada”, or the Union Jack says “Britain,” without a word being spoken, or a bar of those countries’ anthems being heard…
I have raised this now because as Anzac Day approaches, and we turn our minds to the countdown to next year’s centenary, we will reflect on our past but also think about our future.
In my view, that’s an appropriate time to write one small but significant new chapter in our national story by re-considering the flag.
It’s my observation that each generation of New Zealanders is becoming more confident about asserting their Kiwi identity. That’s because we’re increasingly comfortable in our Kiwi skin.
When we go out in to the world, we do so with a strong sense of where we come from.
Our flag should reflect that.