The 40 designs selected this week from more than 10,000 proposals have given some focus to the question of whether we should change our national flag. It has been hard to find much enthusiasm among the public thus far, and that remains true since the publication of the Flag Consideration Panel's "long list".
It seems that among the 40 there is not one so striking, so compelling, that we cannot resist it. We should settle for nothing less if we are going to change the flag.
Too many of the panel's first selection look like they were not only chosen by a committee, but designed by one.
The designs strain to put as many national symbols as possible into the picture. A fern and stars combination is popular, though the two do not look comfortable together. A koru and stars feature on others, to no better effect.
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The panel has clearly been guided heavily by public offerings. A surprisingly large proportion of the 10,292 suggestions included the Southern Cross much as it is on the existing flag. That possibly reflected a wish to keep change to a minimum rather than a strong identification with the constellation we share with the rest of the hemisphere.
It is a pity the panel has not brought more expertise into the exercise at this stage. Flags need particular design considerations. They are not logos or posters, brands or banners. They need dignity, whether they are standing limp or fluttering in a breeze. They also need to be readily identifiable in all situations, especially the top corner that is most visible when the flag is at rest. Most of the 40 fail on that fundamental requirement.
Flag panel chairman Professor John Burrows says it will take technical and practical considerations into account in the next stage of the exercise, when it selects four designs to be put to a postal referendum in November. It will need to ensure none of the four have copyright issues, among other things. The selection may not be as straightforward as it appears.
That aside, Professor Burrows says his panel will remain neutral in the next stage, suggesting it will continue to be guided by what it perceives to be popular rather than its members' personal preferences. That may be a pity.
Now that the options have been narrowed to a digestible number, they are likely to become a popular contest. People will select the one they think the best for the sake of argument and they will start to treat it like a race bet, getting behind it at every opportunity. If it makes the final four, they will consider it a personal triumph. They will be doubly triumphant if it wins the referendum to go up against the existing flag in March. Such a contest might raise interest in a proposal that would otherwise languish in public indifference.
But a process of elimination is unlikely to produce a winner against the status quo. That would require a consensus for change.
Unless we find an alternative capable of exciting a consensus, the country will probably vote to keep the flag it knows.