By James Dignan

A centenary which will probably pass largely unmarked this year is that of our national flag.

Although it had been used unofficially since the 1860s, the design was officially hoisted as New Zealand's national flag for the first time on June 12, 1902. Now, as it enters its second century, views on this symbol of national unity polarise society more than ever.

Those supporting the design see it as representing our traditional links with Britain, a proud banner under which our troops have fought, and a symbol of our stability and responsibility in an ever-changing world.


Those who object to it see it as outdated and outmoded, a symbol of now weak ties with a colonial past, and far too much like the flag of our bigger sibling across the Tasman.

They favour more internationally recognised symbols of New Zealand, such as the silver fern, or want some recognition of our biculturalism.

Both these arguments have much going for them. We are a stable country and the longevity of our flag recognises this. And we do have links with Britain - tenuous ones to be sure, but to deny this part of our history would be as wrong as denying our Maori heritage.

It is wrong to honour only our European descent; there is no indication on our flag that we have a sizeable Polynesian population (let alone the smaller but significant populations from other racial groups).

The flag's Southern Cross is a recognised symbol of New Zealand, albeit one that is used by several other nations, and whether it is as internationally recognised as the silver fern is a moot point.

Our flag has been around far longer than that of almost every other country. Australia, the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, Germany have all made at least minor changes to their flags since 1902.

If we were to change our flag, what would we change it to? To answer is that we need to ask other questions first. What makes a successful flag? What do we want our flag to tell people?

And what features of New Zealand need to be recognised on a flag?

Internationally, successful flags have a few things in common. With few exceptions, they use only a small number of colours, usually drawn from fairly standardised red, yellow, blue, green, black and white. Three or four colours on a flag is usually regarded as the optimum number. More than this, and a flag is too cluttered. Similarly, too much fine detail detracts from the design.

Fewer than three colours and a flag is too boring, especially when neither of the colours is strong like red or yellow. Heraldic rules of using "metals" (yellow and white) to separate areas of "tincture" (other colours) are regarded as the best way to make a bold design that is clearly visible from a distance.

A further point is that fabric fades. Thus, it is rare to find two colours that will look similar when faded (such as light and dark blue, or red and orange) together on a flag.

The colours of flags can say a lot about a country. For historical and social reasons, certain colours are often used by particular geographical, ethnic or religious groups of countries.

A red, green, yellow and black flag will usually be African. A blue, yellow, and red flag frequently indicates South America. Red, white and blue are common among European countries and their more homeward-looking colonies. Green and white indicate an Islamic nation.

Different indigenous populations also have their own colours, such as the red, yellow and black of the Australian Aborigine peoples, and the red, white and black of the tangata whenua.

Any flag we have should say something about our country. It should be a bold, easily recognisable design that is not readily confusable with those of our neighbours.

So what do we need to say on a flag? Ideally, any flag we have should indicate, in part at least, our European and Maori heritages. It should also contain some symbol that is recognisably ours. Only three symbols are known internationally as New Zealand symbols: the Southern Cross, the silver fern and the kiwi.

Of these, the first two are the most logical choices. Despite the fact that we are known as Kiwis to much of the world, to many people overseas a kiwi is a furry fruit. And from the distance on a flag, one bird - even a stumpy, flightless one with a long beak - looks much like any other bird.

The Southern Cross has been on our flag for a century and is easily recognisable, as well as saying something about our location.

The silver fern is known by any nation we play sport with, and in today's global stadium that is most of the planet.

What of four of the alternative flags that have been suggested? First is the green koru fern designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Although this design appears striking on paper, it fails on many grounds. Its green and cream colours suggest we are an Islamic nation such as Saudi Arabia or Libya.

Also, once the flag begins to fade, the two colours start to merge until it is difficult to tell what the design is from a distance. And until a person has been told what the spiral is meant to represent, it is a meaningless symbol. It certainly has nothing about it which indicates that it represents New Zealand, let alone saying anything about our peoples.

The flag of tino rangatiratanga, on the other hand, is bright and bold. There is no way that the red of even a very old one of these flags would fade into the white and black. Again, though, the design means little without explanation. Using this flag as a national flag would also cause controversy among Maori and Pakeha.

Look around any stadium where New Zealand is playing and you will see the white fern on black being waved. This is a strong symbol, and recognisable for what it is without explanation. But, like Hundertwasser's koru flag, its minimal use of colour makes for a boring flag and leaves it open to fading to a grey sameness.

There is also a seeming aversion to using black as the main colour on flags. A black flag conjures up thoughts of piracy, plague or death. No country has flown a mainly black flag (other than Afghanistan, briefly, on one of its multitude of former flags).

A compromise flag sometimes seen is our present flag but with the Union Jack replaced by the silver fern. This is a better design in many ways, although the reasons for the use of the rules of heraldry become apparent when you look at the black and dark blue next to each other.

It is also fair to say that neither of these last two designs tackles the idea of a flag symbolising our biculturalism.

But all is not lost. This last design is close to a viable flag which contains two national symbols and nods to our British past and to our indigenous population, all on a bold and uncluttered flag.

A flag with a broad red diagonal edged in white separating a triangle of black containing the silver fern from a triangle of blue containing the Southern Cross would fulfil all the requirements for a national flag. The lower right portion of the flag would contain the red, white and blue of today's flag, along with its main design element, the Southern Cross.

The lower right corner would thus look back at our present flag and at our links with Britain. The upper left corner would contain black, white and red - the three colours of the flag of tino rangatiratanga - along with the silver fern that is worn and waved with pride at stadiums worldwide.

The design would be bold, distinctive and recognisable as ours. It would be a flag we could all wave with pride.

* James Dignan is a Dunedin writer.