There is a diversionary aspect to the present flag debate. It’s not always easy to know what our attention is being diverted from though. An atmosphere of general bewilderment and indifference is emerging while our politicians try to outdo each other in their flag-changing frenzy. The semantics fly while the country is being divided. The political debate, we are told, is “won in the centre”, but the rhetoric comes from the extremes.
A university publication I read recently states that “Burning and other forms of dishonouring the flag are against the law and therefore a popular form of protest.”[i] Comments like these have the feel of legitimatising such actions and square with the whole move to dump what we have for something else.
In Canada, when the maple leaf flag was forced through Parliament, it was without adequate public consultation. The Union Jack was deliberately forced out. We could be in for something similar. It is clear that it is not going to be an objective debate. Of course if the majority want to go in a certain direction and are given a say then it is difficult to argue against, even though the majority is not always right. But at the moment the majority are just too ill-informed. We have come through years of being deprived of an understanding of our current flag and this is one reason why many people have not developed any strong reason to hold onto it. One could be forgiven for thinking also that some variety of Republicanism is waiting in the wings for the outcome of this debate.
In schools, students are given flag-changing activities such as “write a letter to the editor about whether the flag should be changed or kept as is”. Even at this basic level, there is not always adequate discussion or research put in. But do 15 year olds, for instance, really care? Should they even be burdened with the issue? Are there not more important things to concentrate on? In fact, what often ends up happening is that the students just share their misunderstandings and drum up some drivel about colonialism, “cutting the apron strings”, unfairness and the Maoris…and ultimately they really don’t know what they are on about. It may be good for school art departments as they work on different designs and colours, but for astute observers of political history it is worrying since there are blatant ideological influences at work.
None of the various alternatives will satisfy everyone and there is doubt about the way some of them are being promoted. It is said sometimes that the current flag is an anachronistic relic of colonialism, “red, white and blue…speak of the colonial past”[ii]. In particular, blue seems to be under attack. The description of the flag’s blue background by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage is criticised as “a limp, after-the-fact justification”. Apparently New Zealand has moved on, the flag is old and we are not British anymore, so why keep it? But is “new” a satisfactory argument? The flag is only a little over 100 years old. It’s still relatively young. There are plenty of other flags which have been around longer. The Danish flag is the oldest at about 400 years old.
The move by the present Prime Minister to scrap the flag is a form of cultural vandalism. One thing which comes through loud and clear is a determination to change it. However there is no need. For those wanting to change it, the Union Jack has to go and at the heart of the matter is a dislike of the obvious symbolism of the existing flag and a strong desire to move away from our roots, including recent European, Maori and Polynesian Christian roots, and certainly from traditional European roots. Sadly, the most vociferous and ideologically-driven in our society give only lip service to representative democracy while vying for power, like bullies in a playground fighting over law-of-the-jungle power. People are tempted to avoid the word ‘conspiracy’ through fear of being labelled something or other, but sometimes it’s just plain fact. And it is correct to be concerned that it could it be the thin edge of the wedge - first the flag, then the national anthem, and, over time, the Westminster system of government, common law, and what else if we let it all go? The current push involves a clear attempt to deliberately dismantle New Zealand’s cultural heritage, along with the childish game of name-calling - “right wingers”, “rednecks”, “conservatives’, etc. and watch-this-space for new labels such as “flag changing sceptics” or the like. I have even heard some avid promoters of change (such as one radio commentator), say things like “I get so angry when people just don’t want to change!” i.e. for him it’s all about emotion, not rationality.
If the main goal is be totally multicultural and globalist then it is logical to change the flag. And why stop there? To be consistent it would also be necessary to change the national anthem to something more ordinary, the governmental system to some kind of republican mess, and British common law to the relativist values of global governance. And, in the process, attempt to represent every race under the sun - which really means representing no-one because you can’t represent a thousand disparate cultures. You can only do something like stick the equivalent of a maple leaf (fern or whatever) on to a flag to represent the environment because people groups can’t be represented in this context.
How can multiculturalism be represented on a flag? Firstly, the issue is not how much or little one appreciates other cultures. I appreciate many aspects of many cultures and engage with people of different cultures on a daily basis. Most of us do nowadays, especially in a city like Auckland. People close to me are from other cultures. You can have a lot of fun with other cultures. However, adopting or totally embracing a different culture from my own is another matter. They enjoy theirs and I enjoy mine, including whatever I want to mix in with it. But Kiwis now are becoming unsure of who they are and what their culture is. Your fellow-Kiwi now could be your cobber who you’ve known from way back, played rugby with and gone fishing with and whose family has known yours for several generations, or a foreign-clad figure dressed in black from head to toe and with hardly any knowledge of where they are. Both are now classified as “Kiwis” if they are citizens or are born here. It just encourages confusion. And what kind of culture do immigrants find here when they do come and look around? What kind of identity, character or example do they see in the people who have lived here for generations? Do they see a people who don’t know who they are and who appear to have no heritage? People who can’t agree on a flag? If so, then it’s a case of “anything goes” and “we have a right to do whatever we want”.
There are Kiwi qualities to be justly proud of and to aspire to, even though we don’t always attain to them, things like ingenuity, resilience, pragmatism, self-sufficiency, fairness, honesty, egalitarianism, integrity, empathy, a dislike of formality and pretentiousness, friendship for genuine and not ulterior motives, love of freedom and the outdoors and of adventure and achievement, loyalty, a pioneering spirit, independence, and individual ownership of land. Some of these are the qualities we admire in the All Blacks, in our farming communities, and in various sporting or business achievers who do well and contribute back to the community. And there are negatives – too easy-going in certain instances where you need the opposite, shyness and reserve, cynicism, hedonism, etc. However, we also have the English language and a host of English-based institutions. From these, primarily, came our governmental system, our respect for freedom, and our distaste of corruption, nepotism and control. The blessings of freedom were hard fought for and won over centuries, and the struggle mostly took place in that little country in the Northern Hemisphere which, whether we like it or not, we are still intimately connected with. How many true-blue Kiwis, or anyone living here, would cold-shoulder the Queen if she popped in for a visit? Even those who hate the monarchy will normally show a modicum of respect. The nation must acknowledge its heritage, while also respecting the newcomer who is willing to contribute towards it and towards building it into something even greater in the future, in cooperation with neighbour countries and cultures.
So what does the current flag really say? There is some rich symbolism in it. Here is the crux of the matter. Here are the main points of contention.
- The Southern Cross which seafarers used, the traditional mariner’s guide in the Southern Hemisphere and a symbol of the beauty and promise of a new land, relevant to both European and Polynesian.
- The crossed cross. This was, in ancient language[iii], the first and last letters of the alphabet and represented one of God’s names (“the first and the last”). It also has eight points, eight being the number of perfection, of completion, and the number of Jesus Christ. The crossed cross goes back to antiquity, beyond the political entities of England, Scotland and Ireland, and some say it goes back to the times of Stonehenge. Either way there is deep symbolism in it.
- The colours are symbolic of the Trinity – blue for the God the Father, white for the Holy Spirit, red for Jesus Christ. These colours were also used symbolically in the old tabernacle of Moses. Blue represents love and heaven and freedom (an open sky and the beauty of the sea), white represents purity, and red represents sacrifice and justice.
- The three crosses are symbolic in Christian theology: the white cross of the Abrahamic covenant and Jacob’s crossed hands blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, the red broken cross, (broken because the commandments were broken) representing the Mosaic covenant, and the red cross of Calvary, superseding the others and representing forgiveness, hope, redemption, and new life arising out of the New Covenant of Christ’s blood.
- The three Union Jack crosses represent historic persons who actually lived: St Andrew of Scotland, St Patrick of Ireland, and St George of England. They were real national figures, not just legends.
Finally, it seems that at a time when we should be being a little careful with our national debt levels, expenses and things, I would have thought that a budget shouldn’t really be wasted on changing something unnecessarily. While some think it is worth it, spending millions on a flag change is almost offensive when we consider the needs in other areas such as health. It also seems a rather pathetic example for others (refugees/children) to follow…but then I’m not an economist. Someone will find a reason.
We have worked hard in this country at building a sense of fairness. By all means keep it. Be kind to the “strangers in our midst”. But don’t compromise our heritage. Will our children thank us for ditching our culture and history? Or will they, or our great grandchildren, follow our example and indulge in more cultural destruction, maybe calling for yet another change of flag at some future date. Perhaps they might even look back and criticise this generation for a lack of common sense.
I suggest a vote with the feet – a boycott of the first referendum. The country and future generations will have to live with what is changed now, so if New Zealanders must change the flag then they should make sure that’s what they really want. They also should know exactly what they might be letting go of.
Guy Steward is a teacher, a musician, and a freelance writer. He has degrees in music and theology.