Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Black, red and white flag a spark of sense

Last September, after the Greens collected enough support to force a referendum on asset sales, Mr Key said it "complete and utter waste of money". Photo / Brett Phibbs
Last September, after the Greens collected enough support to force a referendum on asset sales, Mr Key said it "complete and utter waste of money". Photo / Brett Phibbs

The faith modern executives have in the transformational powers of rebranding is remarkable. Hot on the heels of Telecom relabelling itself Spark, Prime Minister John Key decides a new flag will miraculously free New Zealand of its colonial shackles.

If only it were so simple. But yesterday my Spark landline at home started crackling in my ear after the weekend storms just like the old Telecom line used to. And the Spark helpdesk lady was just as bamboozled about how to adjust my android tablet to the new Xtra email security settings as her predecessors.

Mr Key believes that scrapping the old British naval ensign we've been using for a century or more and hanging an All Black jersey up the flagstaff in its place will change everything.

"It's my belief," he told a Victoria University audience, "that the design of the New Zealand flag symbolises a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed.

The flag remains dominated by the Union Jack in a way that we ourselves are no longer dominated by the United Kingdom."

He proposed "we take one more step in the evolution of modern New Zealand by acknowledging our independence through a new flag". A step? More a baby crawl sideways. Especially when Government House servants are currently spring-cleaning the vice-regal pile in readiness for a state visit from the very colonial masters Mr Key wants to shoo away with a wave of a black flag.

Due any day are two future kings of England, and because of that colonial past, future kings of New Zealand as well. Just what is modern or post-colonial about a small Pacific democracy adopting a tiny royal baby from the other side of the world and anointing it as our head-of-state-in-waiting for sometime in the mid-21st century?

Mr Key says "it's my observation that each generation of New Zealanders is becoming more confident about asserting their Kiwi identity. That's because we're increasingly comfortable in our Kiwi skin." This from the man who resurrected royal knighthoods and dameships, and restored the right of senior lawyers to dub themselves Queen's Counsel.

Clutching on to our old colonial royal masters and their trappings because we're too scared to select a Kiwi head of state hardly seems a sign of growing confidence. Or of anyone being comfortable in their own skin. In this context, changing the flag is no more than replacing the curtains at the vice-regal palace. And bloody expensive curtains at that.

To ensure full consultation, Mr Key has decided there will be a referendum on the crucial issue, a standalone affair sometime after this year's general election.

Last September, after the Greens collected enough support to force a referendum on asset sales, Mr Key was very scathing about the cost of referendums. Calling that one a "complete and utter waste of money" he complained that if it was run in the usual way with voting stations around the country, taxpayers would be looking at a $30 million bill. The $9 million postal ballot that did take place still cost a lot of money.

But instead of taking the frugal approach this time and conducting the flag referendum in conjunction with the general election, he's taking the "complete and utter waste of money" standalone route.

First, he'll set up a steering committee of MPs, who will in turn select a group of outsiders to form their own steering committee. Then there'll be calls for submissions on flag designs. Then, it seems, we'll vote on one or more of those designs, or whether to retain the present flag.

Mr Key's already put up his hand in favour of the All Black silver fern. To me, this is such an indelible rugby brand, going back 100 years, that it seems no more appropriate as a symbol of the new multi-cultural, immigrant nation we now are than the existing flag.

If we're going to borrow a new flag, to me the obvious choice is the 1989 creation, the tino rangatiratanga flag. Winner of a contest for a new flag for northern protest group Te Kawariki, the black and red halves represent the Maori creation myth, with a central white koru representing the unfolding of new life, renewal and hope. OK, so it would be secondhand. But so was the naval ensign we borrowed in 1901 that Mr Key now wants to get rid of. And from a flag pole, the tino rangatiratanga comes alive in a way the existing ensign never has. It's special, and at the Olympics or the United Nations it would draw the eye like no other flag.

But I know that isn't going to happen. Mr Key and the majority are not comfortable enough in their Kiwi skins for that.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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