Speaker by Various Artists

Getting fed up with changing the flag?

by Adam Hunt

I've been asked so often I've written a handout: Dear Signature Collector; Thank you for asking me to sign your petition regarding changing the New Zealand flag. I am genuinely impressed that you are taking action about which you obviously care deeply.

The fact you are dedicating so much of your time to something that delivers no material reward indicates you feel it is the most important thing on New Zealand's agenda at the moment; more important than wars, the environment, poverty and civil liberties (or you would be collecting signatures, and possibly money, for the likes of Greenpeace, Amnesty or World Vision).

In response, I would like to explain why I will not be signing the petition, and ask whether there is another issue that would benefit from your passion.

Flags are important symbols that arose from the need to identify your "team" during battle. They are symbolic of one's membership of a system of civil society. Having said that, they are still not generally of great importance except when invoked during times of crisis. For example, most national sports teams do not display their flag prominently on their uniforms.

During a crisis that demands unity, flags are still used as a rallying point. The emergence of the United States flag following 9/11 as a symbol of unity under adversity is a classic example. There are many examples of flags being used in a similar way. The Nazi party in Germany stole a peace symbol and used it as a rallying point. There is now a debate in many European countries whether the swastika should be banned.

As a great man once said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Personally I am rather pleased that we have an innocuous flag that would be hard to turn into a symbol of aggressive patriotism; I think it reflects the nature of New Zealanders.

The second area that I believe makes a change unnecessary at this time is the view of the flag as a brand. As I have mentioned, few national teams rely on a flag in the arena. I suspect one of the arguments for a change is to make the flag distinguishable, something that reflects brand New Zealand.

Flags are not a brand. You can't brand nationhood. It is a product of everyday interaction between us, no a symbol. It manifests every time you wait for the green man, run an amber light, complain about the humidity in Auckland or scream yourself hoarse at the rugby.

PureNZ is a brand - it is a way to gain recognition overseas. Coca Cola is a brand - it is a way to connect a lifestyle to a can of sugary water. Brands must be able to change fairly easily with the mood of society, and with their target market. A flag cannot do this. [It would be cynical to point out that a silver fern on a black background is subject to control under copyright/trademarks, whereas a flag is only limited by statute (no royalties are payable). Such cynicism would unfortunately be reinforced were I to find that the change-the-flag campaign were started by middle aged white marketing/design professionals.]

You may note that I said "at this time". I believe the flag should, like many others, change in the future.

Flags are often redesigned to reflect a momentous event of significance to the nature of the State. For example, the (British) Union Flag (Union Jack means that it is hanging from a boat) symbolised the momentous unification of England, Scotland and Wales. The United States flag symbolises unification following their Civil War. Canada is almost unique in waking up one morning and deciding to change its flag, but that is the example we are being fed.

I think New Zealand has a way to go before it is going to encounter a change that warrants a new flag, but there is a candidate coming up. Sometime in the next 25 years or so we are going to have to address the matter of becoming a republic. Surely that would be a more prescient time, and until then, surely there is something more important going on that warrants your energy and attention at this time?


Adam Hunt.