Guest View: Poles apart from what's important

By Phillip Donnell

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Changing the flags would have been the first step to New Zealand becoming a republic. File
Changing the flags would have been the first step to New Zealand becoming a republic. File

The flag referendum is behind us, and "fiasco" is perhaps the most accurate word to describe it.

Most New Zealanders probably wanted change, but the alternative to the current flag was not sufficiently attractive or appealing.

From the outset, sectional interests were vocal.

The RSA asserted that ditching the current flag was insulting to veterans, because they fought and died under it.

There is little evidence of any such notion in their writings. War graves bear the fern rather than the flag. Coffins were not draped with it. Our armed forces never swore allegiance to a design on a piece of cloth but to our country and its values. So, to my mind, changing the flag did not imply any disrespect.

Zealous Christians spoke next.

Since the Union Jack contains three crosses, they wanted to keep the current flag as "a banner for Jesus", a symbol of salvation and harbinger of his coming kingdom, forgetting that 80 per cent of Kiwis do not espouse their religion.

While our society is based on the Judeo-Christian ethic (should we have the Star of David there as well?), it seemed somewhat haughty and inappropriate to make this the determining factor in the issue.

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Maori musings were mixed. Some expressed pride that we were colonised by contract rather than conquest.

Changing the flag would be the first step to becoming a republic, and would undermine Treaty claims. The Union Jack at least referred to their Treaty partner.

They overlooked the fact that it also recounts abuses and injustices that have taken 40 years to address, and as far as I could see that process was not jeopardised.

Many, including the Maori Party, wanted the Tino Rangitira flag to have equal status, but someone very wise once said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

The waters were further muddied by those in positions of influence, including the media, who frequently fostered a focus on essentially peripheral concerns: the panel, the process, the price, the politics, and the patterns.

The fractious vote by MPs on whether to have a referendum, the debacle over including Red Peak, and constant references to "John Key's pet project", meant that the whole affair was politicised from the outset. Little wonder people voted along party lines.

Graphic artists chimed in, criticising the new design as akin to a tea towel, albeit hard for children to draw. The concept, colours and configuration were wrong. I concluded that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

You're never going to please everyone. We were not offered a knock-your-socks-off option, but to me it was very much the lesser of two evils.

Nigel Latta objected to the cost, without recognising that much beneficial change involves additional expenditure and not all the advantages can be reduced to dollars and cents.

Corporate re-branding is expensive. National re-branding is no different. Democracy and progress have a price. However, when spread over the period a new flag may serve us, the cost was relatively small, decreasing markedly with time.

Andrew Little said the proposed new flag "did not represent New Zealand".

Hard to fathom, as to me it seemed totally indicative. He cited Maori and Pacifica peoples as examples. At least the alternative incorporated neutral and natural symbols.

Beyond that, did he ponder how well the Union Jack reflects the self-governing, multicultural, multi-faith realities of Kiwiland today?

All the above distracted us from the fundamental issue of national identity: to continue being branded as an outpost of Britain, or express ourselves as a proud, mature, and forward-looking nation, finding our own way.

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The flag referendum was like a coming of age, affording the chance to announce our independence and uniqueness, which inexorably precluded having another country's flag as a key component.

As a well-respected nation, we were offered a fresh and distinctive new costume, but 57 per cent of us opted to keep the same tired, outdated livery that we were forced to put on in 1902, and has now been worn for more than 100 years.

At least 43 per cent of us (probably more) hope that this is not the end of the matter.

And with that level of support, it shouldn't be. My earnest wish is that some better costumes will soon emerge, including one which will leave pretty well all of us in no doubt that it really is time for a change - a change for the better.

Phillip Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Tauranga

- Bay of Plenty Times

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