• Jumping the Gun – and the Flag

    I voted in the flag referendum today. I didn’t particularly want to, so I did it without great enthusiasm. I did it as a matter of civic duty.

    I can see why some people want to change the flag. But I like it, mainly because I know it and it’s familiar and comforting. I’m used to thinking “that’s our flag” and feeling patriotic when I see it. I don’t expect flags to do much more that – I’ve never understood the fervour that some people, particularly Americans, feel for their flag. I don’t expect the flag to be a triumph of design or to burst with significance or to make my chest swell with national pride. A flag is just a flag.

    I agree with the current flag’s critics that it suffers a couple of quite significant drawbacks. It’s definitely an oddity that it includes the flag of another nation. The Union Jack is a relic of our past, and even relics have their sell-by date; this one is surely getting perilously close. On the other hand, flags are not logos or brands, requiring to be constantly up-dated. It’s not unreasonable that an important part of our history – one that is almost deliberately played down today – should have made an appearance when the flag was adopted over a century ago and that some reminder of that past should still survive. And, as those of my generation will attest, that reminder was still of some significance during some of the most important moments of our history. In any case, it’s not just a relic; it accurately reflects, like it or not, our current constitutional arrangements and our links with the British crown.

    The second drawback is its similarity to the Australian flag. The confusion this engenders can only play to the constant tendency overseas to lump us in with the Aussies in what is a barely recognised “little brother” role if we are lucky. Perhaps it’s the Aussies who should break that particular deadlock and strike out for a new identity?

    That brings me to the question of timing. For the reasons I mention, I recognise the case for a new flag and I’m not opposed to deciding on one in the fullness of time. But, while some enthusiasts have been campaigning for a few years, I detected – and still do not detect – an upswell of national feeling that now is the moment – that we must not wait another day before making the change.

    There is far from a consensus, in other words, on the need to make what – if and when it is made – will be a momentous decision. It is that absence of a demand for change that leads so many of us, I suspect, to feel a sense of vague irritation that this is a manufactured issue that has been foisted on us – at considerable cost, time and trouble, and at the expense of other more important matters. Why unnecessarily invent an issue that can, at this point, only divide the nation?

    There will come a time when the issue of the flag will move of its own accord to the top of the agenda. We can’t foresee exactly when, but we’ll know when it happens, and it could be sooner than is currently thought. In the meantime, there is a strong sense that someone has jumped the gun.

    If I were to hazard a guess, I would look to a point when Queen Elizabeth II’s record-breaking reign has ended, and when the move to become a republic has taken its virtually inevitable course. When and if that happens, the case for changing the flag will be undeniable and the public will rightly recognise the need to do so.

    This sense that the timing is premature is supported by the fact that efforts are currently having to be made to drum up support and interest – at further cost no doubt – when most people would, at this juncture in our affairs, rather not be bothered. And it is further bolstered by the botched nature of the process that has produced the unconvincing alternative design.

    When we finally decide that the time is right for a new flag, we should at least take the design of the new flag seriously. The panel appointed to drive the current process comprised excellent people, but none had any design experience or skill. Public approval for a new design is of course required, but the public does not have the competence to produce properly designed candidates from which to choose.

    The shakiness of the process was demonstrated when it took only a minor campaign in the social media to persuade the Prime Minister to undermine the validity of the original short list and to add to an already uninspiring collection a fifth candidate of no particular merit.

    I expect – or at least hope – to live long enough to see a brilliant new flag adopted by Aotearoa/New Zealand. But that is not for today.

    Bryan Gould

    10 March 2016