John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Our flag I can bear but we could do better

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The colonial artefact needs to be replaced, however the selected alternative simply doesn't fly.
On paper the new flag looked better than the old. But on the harbour bridge it did not. Photo / Greg Bowker
On paper the new flag looked better than the old. But on the harbour bridge it did not. Photo / Greg Bowker

For few weeks after the first referendum I was going to vote for a change. On paper the new one looked better than the old. But on the harbour bridge it did not. Even once they had replaced the washed-out rag that first went up alongside the national flag, the new one did not do it for me.

I wanted it to. We need to replace the colonial artefact. Every day, driving across the bridge, I willed that fern to grow on me but it hasn't happened. I can only think this is because it is not a professional design. A successful design of any kind is not always immediately appealing but it usually works with time.

Flags, according to the experts, have design requirements of their own. They need to be simple with strong colours, straight lines and no clutter. They can look dull on paper and magnificent on a landscape. Every time I looked at the two flags on the bridge I found myself admiring the rich royal blue of the incumbent and its subdued red stars, which looked much less classy on the brighter blue of the pretender.

Curves don't work on a flag and a clash of images is worse.

All of this, professional designers would have known instinctively at the outset. But we've talked about this, said everything there is to say, heard every argument for and against both flags countless times. All that remains is to do the deed.

Can I really vote for the status quo? I'm trying to imagine how it will feel when the result is announced. Oddly enough, if the alternative is the winner I suspect I will be excited. It is new, it would be quite something for voters to have done, even if only a minority had voted. It would feel like the country was fresh and adventurous.

If the status quo is confirmed it will probably feel flat. There will be a sense of opportunity gone. Those who voted for no change just to disappoint John Key may feel particularly disappointed. It will be his first nationwide electoral defeat and it will be interesting to see how he handles it and how the polls respond.

We seldom get to see how prime ministers handle defeat until a general election sends them from office. They usually accept it modestly and gracefully, leaving those who hadn't voted for them thinking more highly of them than they did before. Modesty comes easily to Key, grace less so. If he can show he not only accepts the result but respects it - by ensuring his answers to questions do not relitigate the issue - his stature could be enhanced.

I found myself admiring the rich royal blue of the incumbent and its subdued red stars, which looked much less classy on the brighter blue of the pretender. Curves don't work on a flag and a clash of images is worse.

He doesn't need to repeat his firm view that a fern would be a better brand. The case for change is well known and these propositions can have a strange way of taking root in rejection. Trevor Mallard's stadium on the Auckland waterfront is a case in point.

When Mallard, as Sports Minister in the previous government, proposed as a waterfront alternative to Eden Park for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, it was so roundly condemned in Auckland that city governors had to reject it. Yet for years afterwards, you'd hear people ruefully wish we had accepted that stadium. You still hear it.

Likewise, a vote for the status quo will probably not be the last word on the flag. Key strenuously disagrees, he is convinced that if he loses this one, no prime minister will reopen the question in the foreseeable future. But if the referendum leaves us with a sense of unfinished business, it is conceivable the project will be revived in a non-partisan way.

Professional designers seem to have taken more interest in it since the disastrous public exercise proved the need for their expertise.

"If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well. Near enough is not good enough. She'll not be right mate," one of them, Michael Smythe, wrote last week. "It would be better to come up with a design that will inspire us and wow the world."

Business-minded Phil O'Reilly called that prospect "mythical". If we wait for a flag with the wow factor, he suggested, we will wait forever.

He is probably right. All that can be said for certain, I think, is that a new flag it will be with us for good - if we retain the colonial relic we keep an option.

We will find a new flag when larger changes are afoot and the flag will be a detail we delegate to designers.

In the meantime, the relic is not so bad. It's heritage. If it continues to be confused with Australia's, I can bear it. I rather like our resemblance. But we could do so much better.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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