When two flags fly officially for the first time this Waitangi Day, much of the focus will be on the newcomer, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, and what its elevation says about our progress in race relations. But what of the other flag, the national ensign? The flag that carries another country's flag on it. What does this anachronism say about us? That we are stuck in a nostalgia centred on our colonial heritage and embrace of British values?

On Australia Day, broadcaster Ray Martin, one of the nominees for Australian of the Year, suggested his nation should replace its flag with one that reflected its own identity. Waitangi Day is surely the time when our thoughts should turn down the same path.

Flags say much about how a people see themselves and how they want to present themselves on the international stage. In return, they help to shape the way the world sees us. The present flag is a statement cherished by those who value tradition. It harks back to a time when maps of the world had huge slabs of British Empire red on them. But it says little else. Worst of all, it is nondescript. The flags of more than 20 countries and territories carry the Union Jack in their left corner. Three-quarters of these also feature a navy blue background. New Zealand's flag is virtually indistinct from many of these.

Canada addressed this issue 45 years ago. It came up with its much-praised and instantly recognisable maple leaf design. The debate there was solely about identity, not about wider constitutional matters or the embracing of a republic. It need be no different here. The debate need not become bitter. Changing the flag is not about dishonouring those who fought under the present flag, just as that ensign, introduced officially in 1902 during a wave of patriotism occasioned by the Second Boer War, was not a slight on the New Zealanders who had fought under the Union Jack.

In launching today a serious examination of the merits of change, the Herald does not presume to say what the design of the new flag should be. Many people will have their own favourites, perhaps featuring the kiwi, the silver fern, variations on the koru design or even the Southern Cross, the focus of the current flag. New Zealand, unlike Australia, is fortunate in having a good range of potential symbols to form the centrepiece of a new ensign. Then again, New Zealanders could embrace a flag devoid of such emblems but rich in colour, stripes or striking shapes. It would be wrong, however, to misappropriate the Tino Rangatiratanga flag. It has only just been recognised as the flag for Maori and should remain as it is and was intended, a symbol of Maori renewal. It has, in achieving that status, virtually ruled itself out of a search for a new, broader national symbol.

In the first instance, in the interests of canvassing what is possible, vexillologists and some leading artists and designers should be commissioned. Then a panel should select the most suitable candidate, which would become the subject of a parliamentary bill. At that stage, public submissions would be heard by a select committee. It is unlikely that politicians of a leave-well-enough-alone outlook will rush to embrace the cause, but those for whom identity is important will recognise the need to lead. Ideally, we would have a new flag to show off at rugby's 2011 World Cup. But even if that timetable, of 18 months, is too tight, it is becoming clear that the time for a change is near. Perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from the Herald's survey of the members of the Order of New Zealand.

A majority of these patriots and paragons support a new flag. Probably none of these people would suggest a change of flag is the most important issue facing this country right now, nor would they say this is a matter worth pursuing if it leads only to rancour and resentment. But they are convinced this need not happen. The time is right. New Zealand's flag says virtually nothing about how this country sees itself today and how it wishes to be seen. It is, indeed, time for a change.