Symbolically, little reflects more the character and nature of a nation and its people than its national flag. It articulates the core defining attributes of a given population, and often encapsulates elements that reflect the nature of a nation's landscape, heritage, and key historical events that have moulded and shaped that nation's national identity in profound ways. At its best, it creates deep emotional and spiritual resonance in the hearts of citizens, and serves as a symbol of immense national pride.
Visually, it flies at countless international political gatherings, is flown proudly from public buildings, is displayed on a nation's exported products, features in innumerable marketing and branding exercises, is sewn into the uniforms of sportspeople and features on the exterior of a national airlines' planes. Perhaps most pertinently, it serves culturally to unite citizens in an intangible yet pervasive manner, reminding us of the national characteristics that bring us together, while similarly serving as a distraction away from the issues that periodically divide us.
Historically, few nations have chosen to replace their flags with new ones, although many have made adaptations to existing designs. Those that have replaced theirs have overwhelmingly been ones that have gained independence: most notably those that were part of the former Soviet Union, such as Armenia, Belarus, and Ukraine; when a new country has been formed following civil war, such as South Sudan; and when fundamental regime change has taken place, such as in post-apartheid South Africa. When a nation has elected to make adaptations to its flag, changes to flag elements have typically involved modifications to flag dimensions, or the addition or deletion of various symbols.
From a Commonwealth perspective, Canada stands out as a nation that chose a new flag as a means of asserting stronger cultural identity and a distinct symbolic break from its British colonialist past. Prime Minister John Key cites this Canadian action as a primary reason New Zealand ought to change its flag. This raises important socio-cultural, historical, and constitutional questions - ones that require careful, considered, and substantive national debate. This debate ought not to be turned into an election-year populist issue; indeed, it ought to be properly examined post-election, away from the petty political point-scoring and one-upmanship typically associated with New Zealand election campaigns of the social media era.
Our nation possesses an indelibly strong Anglo-Saxon heritage, with early British settlers having contributed enormously to the building of a nation and the establishment of nationhood. This period was not without bloodshed, nor without ignominy, as evidenced in the many injustices committed against Maori. Yet our flag, containing the symbol of the Union Jack, importantly reminds us of our foundational links between the British crown and Maori, which remain core to our national identity as New Zealanders.
While today we are an ever-increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse nation, maintaining symbolic representation of the richness of our foundational history is of great importance. The rich royal blue background serves emblematically to represent our seas and sky, while the southern cross denotes the location of our southern Pacific home.
The Prime Minister's proposed silver fern upon a black background is an already well recognised design most commonly associated with the sporting uniforms of the All Blacks, Silver Ferns, and the Black Caps, and appears on the coat of arms. By World War I, it had become the predominant badge upon New Zealand Army uniforms. Fernleaf butter is instantly recognisable upon supermarket shelves across the globe. The underside of the silver fern glows brightly in the moonlight, providing excellent guidance in our native forests, and symbolically representing the concept of leading the way, or the symbolic appearance of lit pathways in periods of darkness. It perhaps is also reflective of the shining pathways famous New Zealanders past and present have trodden, leading the way for others through their drive, determination, and internationally distinctive and exceptional giftedness: think Earnest Rutherford, Kate Sheppard, Edmund Hillary, Eleanor Catton, and Lorde.
Yet do these factors warrant the changing of our current flag to this design?
We proudly and freely live as an independent nation, with many highly gifted, entrepreneurial, creative, and world-leading citizens who have proudly flown our national flag for over 100 years. Let us debate this issue as a nation with caution and care.
• Sam Clements is a lifetime inductee of international honour society Beta Gamma Sigma.
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