We need a strong, fresh and confident flag, not disparate symbols thrown together in an amateurish way.

Aheadline in the Sydney Morning Herald said on Wednesday, "New Zealand has 40 ideas for a new flag - and they are awful."

They really are.

Most of the 40 options selected by the appointed committee look like they were designed by a committee. Especially those that combine the silver fern and Southern Cross. They look like a compromise, a casting vote from a chair who, weary from irreconcilable argument between fern fans and traditionalists, finally says with the inspiration of committee chairs everywhere, "Why can't we have both?"

And all around the table, heads dulled by the difficulty of discussing this subject out loud, nod with resignation.

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None of them at that point want to say what they are all thinking: that either alternative would be better than the compromise. That is how committees work.

In reality I doubt the Flag Consideration Panel under retired law professor John Burrows has engaged in even that much discussion.

Though it included the chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, Nicky Bell, and television producer Julie Christie - along with Sir Brian Lochore, Beatrice Faumuina, businessman Rod Drury, the Chief of the Defence Force, a former mayor of Dunedin, two academics, a writer and a high school student - it resolved not to be creative, but merely consultative.

The members persisted with public meetings even after finding they outnumbered the public who turned up. They had a better response to their website, attracting 10,292 suggested designs. It sounds a lot but the vast majority were variations on a very few themes, incorporating the fern, the four stars or the koru.

The panel appears to have simply counted up the numbers with each symbol to produce a representative 40. Even now, as the panel sets about choosing four for the first referendum, Professor Burrows says it will remain neutral.

This is not the way to find an inspiring flag.

We certainly need a new one. The present flag tells the world we are a small British protectorate, which we haven't been since World War II.

But we need a strong, fresh and confident flag, not one with two disparate symbols thrown together in a way that suggests we are diffident and decidedly amateurish.

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If we want to tell the world we are a place devoid of imagination and style we can run up one of the Kyle Lockwood designs. It sounds like a person's name but it must be a committee. As Gareth Morgan said, they're not flags, they're tea towels - like those Kiwiana montage towels we sell to tourists.

John Key doesn't care as long as the flag contains a fern. He takes a merchant's view of the whole exercise.

"If the flag incorporates the silver fern this country will receive huge economic returns from that," he says. "Companies will use it much more prolifically than they do today. There's a reason Air New Zealand has put it on their planes, they are not stupid. They know it screams 'New Zealand' in the eyes of international consumers."

Does it? The koru looks splendid on the tail of airliners but the large fern wrapped around the fuselage looks odd to me, and when the planes are painted black to make the fern silver it looks like no airline I would trust.

A national flag does not have to be instantly recognised like a brand on a commercial product. Not many countries have a flag outsiders instantly recognise, though probably all could have one if they wanted.

A flag can do something more subtle and important. If it appeals to foreigners they will find out whose it is. The colours and shapes the country has chosen convey a great deal about its character, culture and its sense of artistry and style.

As always with visual art, it is hard to express what it says in words, which is why an inspired result will not come from a panel of eminent but inexpert citizens.

We already have an inspired flag that now flies alongside the national flag on the Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day.

The Burrows panel received several variations on the Tino Rangatiratanga model. I wrote about one of them a few weeks ago, submitted by Aucklander Blair Chant. He replaced the red and black of the Maori flag with blue and green. It is strikingly beautiful and perfect for New Zealand today.

But while the other common themes are all represented in the panel's "long list", not one of the Tino Rangatiratanga derivatives has made the cut. Why, I wonder? Did they fear it might be "divisive" or carried a copyright its creators would not share?

The flag discussion has lacked a Maori dimension so far, which is unreal these days. It is another reason none of the 40 looks likely to fly.