On a flight last week from San Francisco to New York on business, I realised how much the world’s perception of New Zealand is changing.
I was talking to the passenger next to me, when a young San Franciscan seated in the row in front turned and asked if I was from New Zealand. Normally this would precede a statement about how much he liked the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and would love to visit our beautiful country.
Instead he asked if I’d heard of a company called Xero. A software company is what New Zealand is known for! We are not just about beautiful scenery and agricultural produce, we actually have made an impression on the world for our hi-tech.
This is highly relevant given the current flag debate raging through the country. Although it’s not really a debate about the national ensign at all, it’s about where we are at as a country.
The flag debate is not simply a ‘marketing’ issue, it’s more important than that.
Of all the criticisms of the flag project the weakest is that the money spent on the flag process should be spent on other, more important things. There is no denying there are a lot more important issues in New Zealand today, but it’s not an argument, as you could use it for hundreds of others investments a government makes.
Arts, culture and heritage, hardly more important than health and education, gets $289 million per year. Should we simply slash that because there are higher priorities, or do we realise as a country we have to always balance different priorities?
Forget the new flag being an aesthetic debate. Most of us have no idea about flag design, I certainly don’t. It’s much deeper than the subjective question of whether the pretty pictures proposed are good or not.
After all, our current flag hardly has an impressive origin story. The third flag used by our country, it was originally a British maritime ensign that our ships were required to fly, localised with a ‘badge’ for our colony. We simply added some Southern Cross stars and made it into the New Zealand flag.
Australia followed a similar route and ended up with an almost identical result.
Prime Ministers of both countries have been embarrassed showing up to foreign parts under the wrong flag. The Australian Monarchist movement ran a whole campaign in 1999 against the Republic referendum using our flag on their adverts.
Most of the rest of the Commonwealth have abandoned this subservient symbol that we are a colony of the United Kingdom.
The real debate is whether we have changed enough to justify a new symbol to represent our country. I believe there is plenty of evidence we have.
My plane experience reflects a trend of diversification since the 1970s, that’s seen us transform from Britain’s farm (when we exported 92% of our butter there) to an exporter of a mix of primary and secondary goods to Australia, China, the USA and Japan. Technology now sits in the top 20 categories of our exports.
Our ethnic make-up has broadened too. In the 1961 census 92% of Kiwis identified as European. By 2013 this was 74%, with Auckland being under 60%. Recognition of the tangata whenua has grown, while our population is more Pacific and more Asian than ever.
Our current flag is rich in heritage. It has 113 years of meaning put into it by soldiers, travellers, traders, sports people and other Kiwis but it is also symbolic of old NZ, UK-focussed, white and subservient.
What about the ethnically diverse, global, modern country we have become?
The actual design is not that important. It could be the silver fern or the koru, or even the Red Peak (even though that looks very similar to the logo of a US engineering firm!) the actual form is simply a sideshow about which we all love to argue.
Canada’s famous maple leaf was only one choice at the time (others included a beaver and another a fleur de lys), but eventually was decided upon after months of heated debate. It’s not that the maple leaf is inherently a great symbol, it’s that millions of Canadians have put meaning into the symbol by what they have achieved in all fields of endeavour.
On the flip side, the confederate flag of America’s south is a visually attractive emblem, but has so much negative meaning put into it as a symbol of racism that people object strenuously to it.
The process for getting to a new flag might not be the best or smoothest, but I am not sure one could actually be designed that would meet with widespread acceptance.
That Xero CEO Rod Drury is on the flag panel is somehow apt. He represents the ‘new’ New Zealand, and the flag should too. That’s what we have a chance to do, to escape our colonial past and build new meaning into a new symbol, whatever that may be.