Malcolm Mulholland: Does our flag reflect who we are as a nation?

New Zealand is one of just five Commonwealth countries to retain the Union Jack. Photo / Richard Robinson
New Zealand is one of just five Commonwealth countries to retain the Union Jack. Photo / Richard Robinson

There is never a right time to discuss changing a national flag - there will always be the need to do more for the poor and announce policies that keep voters content. However the purpose of a national flag cannot be understated; it should encapsulate the very being of a nation.

Every piece of legislation passed, every dollar of taxpayer money spent, every action taken by a Government should be underpinned by common values, principles and aspirations that all citizens hold dear. That is the purpose of a national flag and that is why changing our national flag is important - it should reflect who we are.

Our ensign consists of the Union Jack and the Southern Cross on a blue background. The Union Jack symbolises the United Kingdom and the Southern Cross is a representation of a constellation of stars that can be seen from any vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere. Under the 1865 Imperial Colonial Naval Defence Act all ships owned by colonial governments had to fly the Union Jack with the badge of the colony.

As a temporary measure, Governor Sir George Grey declared in 1867 that the badge should be the letters NZ in red within a narrow white margin. Two years later, Sir George Bowen, Grey's successor, declared that the Southern Cross replace the letters as a permanent badge.

The design of our flag is attributed to British explorer, author and navy officer, Admiral Sir Albert Hastings Markham. He was asked for his thoughts for the design of a flag in 1869 when stationed in Australia and responded that New Zealand already had the right to fly the Blue Ensign, so why not add the Southern Cross.

However, there was criticism as the Southern Cross was not deemed unique to New Zealand; Australia, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Samoa all have it on their flags. Markham's design was legislated as New Zealand's official flag in 1902.

When it comes to other Commonwealth countries and their flags, we are in the minority. Of the 54 member nations of the Commonwealth, 45 have removed the Union Jack and 35 of those countries made their decision between 1957 and 1979. The catalyst for British colonies to become independent of the United Kingdom began when the European Economic Community was formed in 1957. Britain joined in 1973. At the same time, disapproval of the New Zealand Flag became more vocal.

The main arguments for change have centred on New Zealand's relationship with Britain being less dependent and relevant and that the flag is too similar to that of our Tasman neighbours. Those in favour of keeping the status quo often refer to our forefathers fighting and dying under the gaze of the ensign with the rebuttal being that our soldiers also took to arms to protect our right to an evolving identity.

The movement for change led to high-profile competitions to design a new national flag during the 1980s, reaching a concerted campaign in 2003 with the late businessman Lloyd Morrison attempting to gain enough signatures to spark a citizens-initiated referendum.

As we embark upon debating a new New Zealand flag remember that as a country, we will never reach a consensus but we do need to demonstrate maturity beyond Mother Britain. Although we have no official "independence day" from Britain, as most Commonwealth countries do, we have gradually cut the constitutional ties that bind us.

The last development was when we replaced the Privy Council as our last appeal court with the Supreme Court in 2004. As Britain is no longer involved in the day to day running of the country, the remnants of the British Empire still exist in superficial form such as the Governor-General providing the royal assent to every law that is passed, God Save the Queen remaining as one of our two national anthems, and the Union Jack still occupying a space on our national flag.

Perhaps we should pause and consider if our flag still embodies who we are as a country. If we don't think that is the case, then it's time to change our flag.

Malcolm Mulholland is a senior researcher at Massey University.

This column originally said the European Economic Community was formed in 1967. It was actually formed in 1957. The error was made during the subediting process

Debate on this article has now ended.

- NZ Herald

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