Hats off to the Prime Minister for being prepared to test the public appetite for changing the national flag. He is treading a path that several previous leaders have talked about but were unwilling to walk. John Key said yesterday that he would consult senior ministers, and would not rule out a referendum on the issue as part of this year's general election.
The Government could choose the design of the new flag and ask the public to vote yes or no. There, unfortunately, Mr Key's admirable initiative falls flat. If there is to be a change to the present nondescript design, it must be the product of a far more professional exercise and a carefully considered decision.
A nation's flag says so much about its identity. It encapsulates how a people see themselves and how they want to be seen. The present flag says nothing about this country's uniqueness; only that like many other countries with similar ensigns, it was once part of the British Empire. That is fine with those who place much store in tradition. But it is clear that many people - Mr Key suggests a 50-50 divide - are unhappy with the flag's lack of distinction.
While many may be ready for a better flag, there is no sign of a consensus on what its essential elements should be. The Prime Minister says his personal preference is for a silver fern on a black background. That has become a de facto national ensign at many international sporting events, but it may not be suitable for a national flag, for the same reason Australia's boxing kangaroo will never be that country's official ensign.
New Zealand can do better. The selection of a design to be put before the public should not made by senior ministers; it should be entrusted to a panel of vexillologists, artists and designers. They have plenty to work with, including, most obviously, the Southern Cross and the silver fern but also, potentially, the kiwi or the koru.
Their final choice could then be advanced in one of two ways. First, it could become the subject of a parliamentary bill. Submissions heard by a select committee would allow the public to have a say. Alternatively, it could be pitted against the present flag in a referendum. Either way, the public would be judging a design that was the result of far greater expertise and enthusiasm than that likely to be supplied by a group of senior ministers, some of whom would see no political gain in venturing too far into the issue.
Mr Key, himself, is far from fully committed to orchestrating a change.
He says that he would like it, presumably as a matter of national identity. But he also acknowledges the reasons it might not happen, notably the lack of consensus on a new design and the other, bigger issues facing the country. His diffidence is unfortunate. A new flag would be far more likely if the Prime Minister provided a strong lead, rather than talking vaguely of testing the waters.
This would be a brave step, if only because of the resentment of those who oppose a new flag. In terms of noise, their rancour will always outpoint the eagerness of those who want change. Opponents will also claim that this is the thin end of the republican wedge and will open the door to introduction of a republic. That is not the case, and nor must any debate descend into bitterness.
A more distinctive flag will be adopted one day. The only question is when.
Having raised the issue, Mr Key should be bolder and promote a more acceptable way of arriving at change. Only then will there be a strong chance of something long regarded as inevitable finally become a reality.
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