Nations within the Nation: Trials & Tribulations of the New Zealand Flag Referendum

Shi Cheng Lim – Singapore

The power of national symbols lies in their simplicity and their ability to condense multitudinous facets of society into a sole visual representation. However, it is also in this simplicity that problems arise. For some New Zealanders voting in the flag referendum, a process whereby the existing flag’s hegemony is being challenged, both the process of creation of the symbol and the choice of the final candidate are fraught with controversy. Whether or not the referendum results in a change of flag, the process has raised some deeply challenging questions about the construction of a symbol purporting to represent a nation and the survival of such a concept in an increasingly globalised world.

“What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare’s Juliet; today, New Zealanders are asking “what’s in a flag?” A word, a verbal depiction, a visual representation: these are all fundamentally symbolic. Flags’ simple forms contain multiple dimensions of meaning: of wars fought, of tensions solved and unsolved, of cultures and peoples spanning hundreds of years, of sporting matches fought valiantly around the globe, and most fundamentally of a national identity. However, to what extent can a flag represent a collective identity, and to what extent can it be used to construct one? These are questions that New Zealanders are now asking as the first flag referendum nears its completion. The outcome of this referendum seeks to present a choice: remain with the colonial-flavoured Union Jack and its iconic Southern Cross constellation, or replace it with a stylised and contemporary white fern reminiscent of the world-famous All Blacks, the nation’s world-famous rugby team. As the final stages of the referendum edge closer, a debate is emerging over the impetus behind the change. Is this a retrospective stab at a long-forgotten colonial heritage, or perhaps the first in a series of steps towards a fresh, new identity? In this historic moment, an important space has been created—one for New Zealanders to deliberately and carefully acknowledge both the past and the future and reexamine the very core of their national identity. The flag has become a powerful symbol as a permanent representation of identity, but also as a marker of transition and change. What started as a simple process has now grown into a nation-dividing debate, one where the final decision will have important repercussions for decadesand perhaps even centuriesto come.

One little-known fact is that New Zealanders have actually been talking about changing the flag for decades. The first formalised step, in 2014, was when the current Prime Minister, John Key, announced that it would be on the political agenda. “Our flag is the most important symbol of our national identity and I believe that this is the right time for New Zealanders to consider changing the design to one that better reflects our status as a modern, independent nation,” Mr Key said in a Cabinet paper. However, while this statement seemed ambiguous enough, it hid a multitude of other underlying reasons for a change.

The removal of the Union Jack was a seemingly unanimous agreementat least as represented by the forty flags in the shortlist. Some have argued that this was not due to any anti-royalist stance, stating that the impetus for change exists quite independently of any discussion of New Zealand becoming a republic, unlike in Australia. For now, any change would leave New Zealand as a member of the Commonwealth with the British Queen as the formal (though practically impotent) head of state. The website NZflag.com claims that “[w]anting to change the flag is no more anti-royalist than supporting the All Blacks when they are playing England”. Instead, they argue, the real reason for the change is to prevent confusion with the Australian flag, which differs only in the number and colour of the stars of the Southern Cross. “7 billion people overseas mix it up with the Australian flag and think we are still a British colony”, many have said, and it is true that there have been several occasions of confusionan Australian Prime Minister was once welcomed to Canada by a swath of New Zealand flags. Importantly, the reason for change here is driven more by a desire for distinction, not rejection.

The process of change is now well underway, with the first of two referendums having already occurred, and the second one happening in the next few months. However, even the journey itself has not been without its own issues. Inherent in the creation of any major political symbol are tensions over interpretation and representation. What may have on the surface appeared to be a simple series of referenda was, in fact, complicated by several factors. Initially, the public submitted 10,292 flags to be considered by a Flag Consideration Panel“12 New Zealanders from all walks of life, age and experience” whose job was first to cut down the selection to a shortlist of forty alternative flags, with a further narrowing down to four options to be voted on in a first referendum. While this initial stage garnered intense international attentionmostly due to the “quirky” nature of some of the flags proposedsome felt that this Panel, while perhaps representative of New Zealanders, was not sufficiently qualified in design to make an essentially aesthetic choice. Is a symbol reducible to solely its design? Perhaps not, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t an important factor. Neglecting to include anyone with design experience on the panel was therefore viewed by some as a serious blunder.

A second criticism was levelled about the unexpected addition of a fifth finalist to the shortlist of four flags: the “Red Peak”. One Member of Parliament described this addition as “totally undemocratic” since it was added hastily to the list after the selection committee had narrowed down the choice from the original long list of 40 flags to four alternatives. Originally gaining momentum on social media, the Red Peak was extremely popular amongst many young people in the country. Despite the fuss, however, it claimed a humble third place in the first referendum, garnering just under eleven percent of the votes by the end of the first referendum. Should the process of creating a new national symbol be regarded as important as the result? Perhaps if the Red Peak had won, people might be asking these questions.

The third, and perhaps most important, criticism highlights the low voter turnout in the first referendum, raising questions about a lack of support for the change. New Zealand, normally boasting one of the highest voter turnouts in democratic elections in the world, saw just under fifty percent of the voting population participate in the first referendum. This abstention could be indicative of a few things, including a protest of any change at all, outrage concerning the change process itself or the inadequacy of the alternative designs proposed, or simply a general apathy towards the whole process. One major component of the change process was the cost of NZD$26 million, which caused some outrage. If nothing else, what is certain is that a great number of New Zealanders took issue with at least one component of the flag change process.

National symbols are powerful in their simplicity and have deeply implied meanings that transcend time and space. Flags are not simply a representation of the past and the presentthey are also a depiction of the future. Perhaps this is why the flag referendum process in New Zealand has been so fraught with controversy: it is not surprising that a nation-state, composed of an almost infinite number of subgroups with differing preferences and opinions, cannot instantly agree on a common, representative image.

Perhaps it is inevitable that symbols like national flags must be simultaneously reductionist and representative; both inclusive and exclusive. Symbols tell stories, but they also omit them. Symbols contain memories of unity, and of friction. Are national symbols becoming increasingly problematic today? With the once solid demarcations of the Westphalian nation-state slowly dissolving under the joint pressures of globalisation, mass migration, and international trade, it is not surprising that it is difficult to achieve consensus on how such a diverse collection of people should be represented and identified. National symbols are fundamentally about identities; and these, though once assumed to be discrete, are becoming increasingly amorphous. It is yet to be seen is how symbols, purporting to represent nations, can remain strong in the face of the increasingly porous boundaries of modern identities—this in itself is perhaps indicative of more important changes to come.