We need a new one to suit an embassy as well as a stadium

It is time to think seriously about the flag. Seriously means it is not an exercise in artistic imagination, not yet anyway. Nor is it a debate about whether we are fundamentally British, Maori, bicultural, multicultural, green, blue, red and black or all black. Not yet.

Seriously means imagining you are standing quietly somewhere looking up at the flag. You could be on the lawn at Waitangi on Thursday when the sun is breaking over the Bay of Islands and people are milling around after the dawn service, talking or just gazing at the magnificent ship's mast that stands on the spot where the Treaty was signed.

Flags fly from its yard arms as well as the top but it is the top one we are talking about. That is the one that has to be right. It has to be more than a work of art or a collage of cultural symbols, or a sporting banner.

If we are going to choose a new flag by popular vote then we have probably already had the referendum. Two and a half years ago we voted with car windows, house poles, shop displays, instant shrines that popped up everywhere from urban office lobbies to farm paddocks during the Rugby World Cup.


Everywhere the chosen flag was black with a big silver fern.

It was magnificent while it lasted and the black flag was perfect for the fun. But would it work at all times, in all places? Would it work on the Waitangi mast or the Auckland War Memorial Museum or the harbour bridge?

Black with the fern in giant proportions succeeds well enough on the hull of America's Cup yachts and Olympic uniforms, not so well on airliners. The sooner Air New Zealand revises its thoughts of permanent black livery the better. Black is fine for an occasional big event but deathly in everyday life.

A national emblem has everyday work to do. The flag has to stand in quiet places at quiet times as well as festivals. It has to have dignity in embassies and courtrooms as well as a rugby stadium. Its design has to make it instantly recognisable when limp. Its only distinguishing symbol cannot be hidden in its folds.

That is the reason I probably cannot have my preference: the silver fern quite small in the centre of a blue flag. The shade of blue would be important.

But a design such as that would put nothing in the all-important top left quadrant, the only part of a flag always visible. Possibly that is the only part of the existing flag we need to change. The Union Jack in that space is an anachronism.

A century ago when New Zealanders and Australians went to war as distant branches of the British Empire, their present flags were a perfect expression of their identity.

Even in the second war, the flag of British dominions served well enough. But those born since the war have never felt the same attachment. The top left quadrant is long overdue for something more fitting.

What? The silver fern would not be strong enough to carry the flag from that corner. The koru is stronger and could work, as long as the frond curled from the side, not the base, and its shape was stately, not cute or playful.

Curves are not common on national flags. There must be a good reason that nearly all of them use strong straight lines, as stripes or crosses, with stars or shields or orbs in pride of place.

Canada's is different. When Canada ditched its British imperial relic it chose a radically different design with the big maple leaf. Canadians put it proudly on their backpacks to say they are not from the United States. Maybe it works for them.

The worst reason for changing our flag, in my view, is that it can be mistaken for Australia's. I don't mind being like Australia. If the rest of the world looks at our flags and takes us for twins, so what? We are.

Both of us could replace the Union Jack with something that distinguishes us from each other and keep the rest of the flag with the stars of the Southern Cross. I like our muted red stars beside Australia's bright white cluster.

In place of the Union Jack we could have something indigenous that could look equally strong and vaguely similar: tukutuku, those textured weavings on the walls inside meeting houses. The flag could have in that corner one or two intersections of red and black tukutuku strands, with white too to make it bright.

Whatever the design, it has to work in those quiet times when it must express a heritage and identity and stand for constitutional stability, liberties and pride.