05 February 2005
There's no shortage of people with designs on our flag. MICHAEL FALLOW looks
into its past, present and possible future.
Let us turn to the Flags Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981, which you no
doubt have lying around on your coffee table somewhere.
"The New Zealand Flag is the national symbol of this country and accordingly
it should be honoured and treated with respect.To use, display, destroy or damage
the Flag in or within view of a public place with the intention of dishonouring
it is an offence ..."
Couldn't be clearer? Could be.
Because the act is in conflict with an increasing respect, or at least tolerance,
for the right to protest.
Last July, Justice France overturned a conviction against Porirua teacher Paul
Hopkinson for dishonouring the flag at Parliament in March 2003, during a protest
against a visit by Australian Prime Minister John Howard's visit.
The court found that protecting the flag did not justify limiting his right
to express himself.
So Hopkinson did it again, was arrested again, went free again, and was last
heard rumbling about suing the police.
Lately, the flag has been assailed by more than the theatrical actions of protesters.
Calls for its replacement come from a range of people, including more than
a few of our Olympians, who point to its lack of distinctive quality, and how
easily it is confused with other flags, especially Australia's.
Actually, it was the ever-helpful Aussies in the first place who brought home
to nascent New Zealanders that they really needed a flag of their own.
Diligent Australian customs officials did this in 1830 by seizing the Hokianga-built
trading ship Sir George Murray in Sydney for sailing without a flag or register,
in breach of British navigation laws.
Trouble was, New Zealand could not sail under British colours because we were
not yet a British colony.
And we had no flag of our own.
Without a flag to represent ourselves at sea, our ships and their cargoes would
continue to be seized.
The semi-sympathetic Australians, who did, after all, want to trade, wound
up granting a temporary licence to the ship, but indignation back in New Zealand
was particularly strong among Maori.
Two principal chiefs were on board at the time.
Bay of Plenty British immigrant James Busby lobbied quickly and smartly for
a flag to be designed (partly, they reckon, as a way to encourage Maori chiefs
to work together, paving the way for further collective dealings of a governmental
The Australian authorities agreed and on March 20, 1834, at Waitangi, the chiefs
chose their flag from a group proffered for selection.
It had the red cross of St George on a white background and a smaller red St
George's cross in the top left-hand corner on a blue background.
The King approved the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand.
Then came the flag we now have. It was made to fit a prescribed template.
In 1865 Britain decreed that its colonies would fly the blue ensign with the
Union Jack in the upper-left hoist quarter and a distinctive regional symbol
We chose the southern cross.
What exactly does the flag detail symbolise?
An Internal Affairs handbook has a fair crack at an answer.
"Its royal blue background is reminiscent of the blue sea and clear sky
surrounding us. The stars of the Southern Cross emphasise the country's location
in the South Pacific Ocean. The Union Flag (Union Jack) gives recognition to
our historical foundations and the fact that New Zealand was once a British
colony and dominion."
Perhaps that struck the writers as a tad dispassionate.
So the description continues.
"The hoisting of the New Zealand Flag symbolises hope for the future.
Its lowering is a symbol of respect for the past. Everyone is encouraged to
show they are proud to be New Zealanders by flying the New Zealand flag."
But a raft of New Zealand celebrities, including Neil Finn, Keith Quinn, Alan
Duff, Anna Rowberry and Steve Gurney, are backing attempts by the NZFlag.com
Trust to get a citizen-initiated referendum.
To that end it aims to collect 350,000 signatures by May.
Complained Gurney: "I feel a real loss of pride after putting in a winning
performance to see this naff flag raised. (It) clearly doesn't represent us
as being uniquely Kiwi. I'd rather see something that engenders pride."
On the other hand, John Walker has been quoted saying, soon after his gold
medal race at Montreal in 1976, that as he rounded the final bend he felt a
huge lift when he saw a New Zealand flag draped over the side of the hoardings.
Of the present debate, Walker takes the view that if we are going to change
the flag, it should be in consultation.
Among the wider public, one group's views are particularly relevant.
The Returned Services Association's opposition to a change would for many be
a telling factor.
Olympians, for all their feats, haven't suffered under that flag the way our
soldiers have, or seen their mates laid to rest under it.
But from the association's thinning ranks the official stance is a balanced
It will not oppose a change as long as a referendum reveals majority support.
The fern stands proud in many alternative designs for a New Zealand flag.
Southland-raised opera singer Deborah Wai Kapohe, at concerts around New Zealand
last year, raised one of the most commonly cited potential replacements, an
NZflag.com favourite, a stylised fern.
Some clapped and cheered, others sat silent.
Wai Kapohe herself liked it: a flag, she said, that had more to say about us
than the existing one did.
Southland Girls' High School pupil Stacey Shaw last year won a schools competition
run by NZflag.com Trust to design a new flag.
She also used a fern, each point of which represents different nationalities
living in New Zealand, coming together at the stem.
The black and white colours, she believed, were distinctly New Zealand.
Our Olympic team's last chef de mission, Dave Currie, pointed out that black
flags with the silver fern far outnumbered traditional flags in the athlete's
The main criticism of the fern symbol certainly a stylised one
is that it can too easily be mistaken for something with an entirely different
sort of symbolic meaning.
A white feather. A symbol of cowardice and defeat.
Hurrumphed one Public Opinion letter writer: "(It is) a black rag with
a white feather on it, which they say is a fern leaf. Well, I've been around
a long time and never have I seen a white fern leaf except when it is dead or
Correspondents to this newspaper have not been shy to produce their own options.
Ken Johnston of Invercargill has proffered a design he came up with more than
a decade ago, incorporating a kotuku superimposed over the union flag.
"The kotuku," he says, "represents everything pure and beautiful
in Maori mythology and oratory. Most importantly, the kotuku represents all
the people of this land. The kotuku is a traveller, who came to this beautiful
country and chose to stay."
Aaron Nicholson of Manapouri has also followed the flag debate for decades
and suggests his design is a perfect compromise.
"It's a sort of an upgrade with a touch more patriotism and a hint of
sporting prowess, but it's still easily recognisable as our national ensign
... and it's from Southland."
Michael J McConnell of Dunedin stresses there is a difference between a flag
and a logo, or a coat of arms, or a banner.
"The fern symbol is currently used both as a logo and a trademark,"
"The suggested designs for a new flag incorporating a fern are really
more akin to banners. They would do a great job advertising the New Zealand
pavilion at a World Trade Fair, but fall short as a distinctive flag design.
"Any flag design must also be acceptable in that it has to be presented
in Red Ensign and White Ensign variations for the Merchant and Royal Navies
The Southland Times
© 2004 Fairfax New Zealand Limited