In the days after this year’s election, Prime Minister John Key outlined the priorities for his Government in the next three years. Amid trade deals and welfare reforms was an indication that he wants to look at changing the New Zealand flag. But could debate over the flag spark a wider discussion about our ties to the monarchy?
“I'd like to get on with it, to me I’d like to do it as a 2015 issue,” Key told Radio Live. “We want a design that says ‘New Zealand’, whether it’s stitched on a Kiwi traveller’s backpack outside a bar in Croatia, on a flagpole outside the United Nations, or standing in a Wellington southerly on top of the Beehive every working day.”
Last week the Prime Minister said the referendum would happen in two steps, with a run-off between alternative designs and the most popular of these up against the current flag around April 2016.
“We've had this debate roaming around for the better part of the last 25 years and we need to put it to bed one way or the other and make a call on it,” Key said.
WATCH what these people on the streets of Wellington had to say about the national flag:
Key has always been vocal about wanting to change the flag (and previously expressed a preference for a silver fern design, though that has since changed), but a ONE News Colmar Brunton poll in February found overwhelming opposition to the idea, with 72 per cent of people wanting to keep the current design, and the discussion was largely shelved until after the election. Now there’s broad cross-spectrum political agreement about at least having a referendum on the issue.
“It’s about identity, and having a flag that really represents what New Zealand now is,” says Lewis Holden, 30, the spokesman for the Change New Zealand flag campaign. “Our current flag represents New Zealand as a colonial country, which we’re not. It doesn’t capture the diversity of modern New Zealand, and it doesn’t say anything about us really to the world, about what makes us unique and different.”
In February, Returned Services Association president Don McIver told Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report that most service personnel wouldn’t like the idea of changing the flag, unless the population is totally behind it. “I think it’s important to most veterans and ex-service personnel, because they served under that flag and it has significant meaning for them. … [The Union Jack] is traditional, and we’re still a member of the Commonwealth, and the Queen is still our head of state, so from that point of view it makes some sense.”
But Holden says “our ancestors went off and fought for freedom and democracy” – and a discussion about what the flag should be part of the democratic process. “My grandfather used to say to me that he fought against a system where if you wanted to change the flag – in his words – ‘they’d take off your head and put on a pumpkin’. So I don’t think it’s disrespectful.” And he points out that the silver fern is used on many New Zealand war graves overseas.
Wellington student and Monarchy New Zealand member Pita Roycroft, 20, is a fan of the Union Jack, but still wants to see the flag changed. “I think the Union Jack is representative of us, because of the history and culture behind it, but the Southern Cross I don’t think has much to do with us at all.” (The Southern Cross does represent our location in the South Pacific.)
The Union Jack has a rich history, he says. “Despite the dispossession or marginalisation of Maori like myself in the past, I do think the Union Jack, because of all the good things that happened in our history, it’s definitely something we should keep – especially while we have a monarchy.”
But Morgan Godfery, a student and political blogger, says the current flag is a relic from New Zealand’s past. “I agree with John Key that it is a symbol of our colonial history, so I think we need to move past that. There are all sorts of symbols to choose from: the koru, the silver fern. We’re not lacking symbols of national identity.”
But that begs the question why change the flag at all – can’t we have more than one symbol of national identity? “It’s the symbol of national identity on the international stage. And on the domestic stage, to some extent. The flag is a monument to self-expression.”
Chloe Oldfield, 22 is the vice-chair of Monarchy New Zealand. She’s hesitant about change for change’s sake. “I think there needs to be a convincing mandate from the public, and any change needs to be considered in light of the future of New Zealand. So I wouldn’t want this to set a precedent of changing our flag every ten years or so.”
But part of New Zealand’s future is questioning our ties to the monarchy.
Amid the pomp of Parliament being sworn in this week is the Speech from the Throne – given by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative in New Zealand. It’s an opportunity for the government to outline its intentions this term. As New Zealand is a constitutional democracy, neither the Governor-General nor the Queen takes an active role in the executive functions of Government. The head of state acts on the advice of Ministers of the Crown, except on rare occasions such as when appointing a Prime Minister after an election.
Godfery says the debate over the flag could be a catalyst for further debate about that role. “If we have this debate about the flag – and the result is a progressive one – we will be ready for a debate about our constitutional status.” He’s in favour of New Zealand becoming a republic, saying it’s the last step in the country’s democracy to take.
(United Future leader Peter Dunne, who is notably down with the kids, also said a recent poll showed that younger New Zealanders in particular feel New Zealand should be a republic.)
Oldfield says that the flag debate, regardless of the outcome, doesn’t mean New Zealand “needs or has to or should” change its constitutional structure. “I hate to use the phrase ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it’, but [it applies] to move to a model that is untested, that we haven’t had experience with, when our current model is doing well and is favoured by most New Zealanders.”
Oldfield says she’s not alone in her fondness towards the monarchy and the royal family – particularly and increasingly among people under 30. That our ties to the motherland don’t impact on most of our lives is testament to the fact that the current system works, she says. “When you put it in the global context, we’re actually very lucky that we don’t have to think about our constitutional structure when we wake up in the morning. I don’t know about you, but the first thing I think of when I wake up is breakfast, not who our head of state is.”
We’ve had the talk a lot of times … you want to have healthy solid debate, rather than continually dragging it out.
But Holden says whether or not New Zealand should become a republic is worth debating. He points out that Canada changed its flag in the 1960s, but retained its ties to the monarchy. “I accept that things like jobs and the economy and jobs and the health and education system, they will always be around – they’re the issues that we’ll always debate – whereas I think the national identity ones are ones that only come around every 150 or so years.”
Roycroft agrees on that point at least. “We’ve had the talk a lot of times … you want to have healthy solid debate, rather than continually dragging it out.” He argues that New Zealand has a long history of stable democracy, and a unique relationship between Maori and the Crown – though he concedes that that relationship hasn’t always gone well.
“It’s good that the Crown is going through processes of redress, and a lot of Maori are seeing that. And Maori don’t mind the fact now, even though there are past historical grievances, it’s good that they get fixed and remedied, so we can go on with it.”
The royal visit in April showed the popularity of the royal family: at the time, the Prime Minister said in his “heart of hearts” it is inevitable that New Zealand will eventually ditch the monarchy and become a republic – not that that would happen anytime soon. But the debate over the flag that Key’s in favour of may spark bigger questions about our national identity and our place in the world – beyond that which is marked by the Southern Cross.