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New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key thinks the country’s flag looks far too much like Australia’s and needs an overhaul.
“I can tell you as prime minister,” he told local radio last year, “the number of times I’m at an international meeting and they sit me down in front of an Australian flag or in an Australian area. It’s not funny. It happens all the time.”
Mr Key launched a campaign to change the flag in 2014, selecting an independent panel to conduct public consultations and inviting the public to submit designs.
More than 10,000 designs were submitted before the closing date earlier this month. They range from the stunningly beautiful – mountains set on an inky blue background underneath tiny stars – to the downright funny – a sheep standing next to a cone of hokey-pokey ice cream or a kiwi with a laser beaming from its eye.
The panel now has the task of whittling the mountain of designs down to four and the public will be able to vote on their favourite in a referendum in November. A second referendum will be held in March 2016 to decide between that chosen alternative and the current flag.
But the issue has proved to be a divisive one in New Zealand, putting war veterans at odds with the prime minister and some Māori, who say the current flag doesn’t represent them. Many members of the public also think the process is too expensive and the money could be better spent.
‘Imagine being the guy who designed the flag’
Artist Otis Frizzell remembers being confused about the flag at an early age.
“I couldn’t tell the difference between a New Zealand flag and the Australian flag, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s kind of silly for something to represent a country but you’ve got to have a really close look at it to even know the difference’,” he says.
He first designed an alternative in 2009 and played around with a few styles and colours before submitting the final version – “Manawa” – in the current race.
He describes the flag as representing “the Southern Cross in a night sky with a crashing white wave on the green ocean and the green landscape” and says he drew inspiration from Māori motifs and the natural world.
“I wanted to put a Māori design element in the flag because the Māori motifs always have a story and a reason for being there,” he sais. “They’re not just design for design’s sake.”
His design has proved a popular one – winning a people’s-choice award and gaining media attention – but he has no idea whether that means he has a shot at making the top four. He has set up a Facebook page to get people voting for his design and says the idea of getting through the stages is exciting, if a little fantastical. “Imagine being the guy who designed the New Zealand flag,” he says. “That would be pretty awesome.”
Mr Frizzell is not the only one lobbying in this race.
The New Zealand RSA has set up its own campaign to get people voting against a flag change. They have put out media releases, made bumper stickers and urged people to fly flags outside their homes.
Vice President Bob Hill, himself a veteran, says the current flag is enormously important for many returned servicemen and women.
“We believe we have an obligation to lead a fight against it,” he says. “We don’t want to be seen as old fuddie duddies and living in the past but then again, a lot of New Zealanders have died under that flag. So we think it’s important to keep it.”
But Marama Fox, co-leader of the New Zealand Māori Party, said Māori soldiers were treated poorly during World War I and II and this argument doesn’t stack up.
“When [Māori soldiers] returned home [from war] – having proven themselves as worthy citizens – they were treated with great disrespect because they were not given land allocation, as the other soldiers were, and they were not given allowances, as other soldiers were,” she says.
“They were completely disrespected under that flag. So do I hold any great loyalty to it? No I don’t, because I don’t think it’s the flag they died for. They died for their families, for their mates, for the love of this country – not got that flag and that symbol.”
But Bob Hill rejects the idea that Māori servicemen and women are any less connected to their country’s flag.
“I served in Vietnam with a section of ten people and three quarters of them were Māori,” he says. “I have never heard that comment before and would take issue with that.”
The fourth flag
Is changing a flag a big deal? John Key has been at pains to point out that New Zealand has already had three flags before the current one and that other countries including Canada and South Africa have also changed theirs.
South Africa’s decision came in 1994 at the end of apartheid. The former flag has since been adopted as a symbol of white supremacy.
The debate in New Zealand has also raised questions about whether Australia should consider a similar move but Tony Abbott has all but ruled out any major change.
When asked at a press conference recently whether making the Northern Territory into a state would mean the flag would have to be changed, he told reporters: “I’m not in favour of changing the flag, I’ve got to say.”
“Although I have to say that if the Commonwealth star was to be a 7-pointed star rather than a 6-pointed star, that’s hardly a massive change. I would say that that is an evolution rather than a revolution.” This comment proved redundant because, as pointed out by Fairfax media, the Commonwealth star already has seven points.
A public divided
The answer to the question of whether New Zealanders favour a flag change differs depending on who you talk to.
In Parliament this week, a bill providing for two referendums on the flag passed its second reading. But Green Party MP Russel Norman accused the prime minister distracting from the real issue of becoming a republic. “By changing the flag, what do we really change?” he said. “It’s just changing a piece of cloth.”
New Zealand First MP Denis O’Rourke said the prime minister should withdraw the bill. “The truth is that this government is pushing this bill against public opinion, not following it,” he said.
An independent panel selected to lead public engagement on the issue recently completed a national tour that involved holding public forums up and down the country.
Deputy Chair of the 12-person panel, Kate De Goldi, says the process was ground-breaking.
“It’s fundamentally a national discussion about New Zealand identity,” she says. “The first time, I think, in global history that a country has engaged in this type of process to choose a flag.”
It has been widely reported in New Zealand media that the forums were poorly attended but Ms De Goldi says thousands of people engaged online and those reports were overplayed.
“I don’t see it as a low turnout I see it as a turnout of people who wanted that kind of engagement,” she says.
On the streets of Wellington, some say they are angry about how much the process is costing.
“There are a lot of children suffering from poverty at the moment and I think that $26 million could have probably gone a lot further than changing a flag,” one woman says.
“It’s a waste of money. They could do better than that,” says another.
But Otis Frizzell says he thinks the whole conversation had been hijacked.
“If you moved the cost of the referendum completely from the picture, I think most people would say, ‘Yeah I think we do need a new flag.’ But the whole issue’s been clouded by money,” he says.
Marama Fox says it’s an issue that has hit home with some Māori and many were asking: “When poverty is impacting on Māori specifically as it is in this country, then why are we spending $26 million on a flag change? On the referendum for a possible flag change that may not in fact happen?”
But she says the greater goal is important.
“We need a nation’s flag that represents all of our nation’s people and I don’t think we currently have that.”
The first of two referenda will be held in November to choose between four alternative designs.
A second one will be held early next year to decide between that chosen design and the current flag.
Some have speculated that John Key’s motivation for holding the referenda is to have a “legacy moment,” while others have accused him of using it to distract from other policy changes. Mr Key himself says he is driven by a desire to move with the times and bring in a flag that represents modern New Zealand.
Whatever the reason, it’s up to the public to decide the outcome.
Listen to the SBS Radio version of this story: