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10 February 2010

The flag "debate"

Why is the Australian-owned APN media empire all of  a sudden telling us that New Zealand needs a new national flag which would signal  the end of the colonial relationship with Great Britain?

To find the answer one hardly needs to look beyond the columns of APN's flagship newspaper, the New Zealand Herald.    The Herald argues that New Zealand needs a new flag for two reasons: firstly because the New Zealand and Australian flags are "too similar" and secondly because New Zealand has "grown beyond" its colonial association with Great Britain as symbolized by the Union Jack in the top left corner of New Zealand's current "national" flag.

There is no disputing that the similarity of the two flags may lead to confusion, but it is also abundantly clear that the consequences of any such confusion have only been of the most trivial kind.   Neither country has gone to war on the basis of a  mistaken identity.   There has not even been a serious diplomatic incident  resulting from confusion between the two flags.    From APN's perspective, the real problem with the New Zealand and Australian ensigns is that their similarity - both feature the Union Jack in the top left quarter and the southern cross on a blue ground - also implies equality.

Despite the inequality in population, economic resources and military power,  Australia and New Zealand enjoy equal status within the British imperial system as antipodean daughters of mother England.  New Zealand and Australia have equal status through the shared relationship with Britain, and it is arguable that  New Zealand has remained independent of Australia only by virtue of its continuing direct relationship with "the mother country".

It suited Britain to maintain a legal separation between the antipodean colonies.   Within New Zealand, it also suited the interests of Maori nationalists, radical Pakeha nationalists such as the late Bruce Jesson, and socially conservative, pro-British nationalists such as Winston Peters of the New Zealand First Party.  But it does not suit those Australian business corporations who now dominate the New Zealand news media, the banks, and a large part of New Zealand industry.

APN argues that separation from Britain would be an expression of indigenous New Zealand nationalism, a reflection of the emerging national identity, and therefore a move which which would strengthen, accentuate and promote the national character.  History and logic show the dishonesty of such an argument.   Whenever the colonial regime in New Zealand has moved away from Britain, it has moved closer to Australia and the United States.   The same pattern of shifting imperial allegiances is evident in the other former British colonial territories with Anglo-Saxon majorities.   The Herald itself makes the claim that Canada abandoned the Union Jack flag in favour of the present maple leaf design under pressure from its United States neighbours, and there is really no disputing that both Canada and Australia now follow the US rather than British lead in world affairs.

In New Zealand's case, the declining power of Britain, and the concurrent rise in influence of Australia and the United States, can be traced back to the decade of the nineteen sixties.   Until that time New Zealand had joined in every British imperial war, from the Boer war of 1900, to the Malayan "emergency" of the nineteen fifties.   In the decades since, New Zealand failed to join Britain in the Falklands war, but along with Australia, has taken the side of the United States in every international military conflict.   In the economic arena,  New Zealand had historically allowed British industry preferential access for trade and investment, but following British entry into the European Union those imperial preferences were transferred to US and Australian concerns.   Since then the US and Australia have gradually replaced Britain as the leading influence over colonial culture, commerce, administration and government.

Britain's decline as a world power, followed by its entry into Europe, left a vacuum within the colonial regime which was easily filled by US and Australian interests.  The particular advantage of this new order for Australia was that the US was willing to allow Australia a privileged position as "Deputy Sheriff" in the south Pacific, to quote former US President George W Bush.    Australia is part and parcel of the American new world order on a basis of equality with its former colonial ruler, Great Britain, while New Zealand remains stuck on the third tier of the imperial system  in practice subordinate to Australia, while still nominally under British influence.    Thus in order to assert its seniority over New Zealand in the new world order, Australia will want to sever the remaining ties between New Zealand and Britain.

From the APN point of view, a change to the New Zealand flag is an essential step along the way.   The symbolism of the flag is perceived to be important.  The present flag serves as a rallying point for the socially conservative pro-British forces, both Maori and Pakeha, that found their political expression in the New Zealand First Party, and a change to the flag will assist in further eroding that pro-British sentiment.

A debate over the flag is also convenient to APN, because the discussion will almost inevitably be conducted on a superficial level.  A flag, however aesthetically pleasing,  is a crude symbol of national identity and statehood which allows for no subtlety, nuance of meaning, paradox, or contradiction, and provides no profound understanding of historical and social realities.   Typically, the Herald has presented the flag debate as a "branding" exercise for New Zealand.   It has chosen to give prominence to the views of regular columnists like Fran O'Sullivan, Garth George and Noelle McCarthy  followed by a two page survey of people variously described as "brand strategists" and "marketing experts" .

Interestingly, the Herald mentions that the late Clark Titman originated the movement for a new flag in the nineteen sixties.  Titman perfectly demonstrates the origins and motives of the current campaign for a new flag.   He was a former US marine, who wanted a close military alliance with the United States, and in particular wanted New Zealand support for the on-going American war in Vietnam.   Along the way he wanted a change in the New Zealand flag, which would have the effect of loosening the traditional New Zealand allegiance to Britain, thereby enabling closer ties with the United States.

By contrast, the Herald made no mention of one of Titman's contemporaries,  Bruce Jesson, a Pakeha New Zealander with Marxist leanings who had also favoured a change of flag, but only in the context of a radical decolonisation of the New Zealand state and society.   Jesson's own profound, erudite and exhaustive critique of New Zealand social and political history was in contrast with the superficiality of the "brand strategists" who are participating in the phony "debate"  initiated by APN.   For Jesson a flag change was incidental to his main aspiration which was for a thorough-going and radical indigenous nationalism.

The Herald is attempting to change the flag without making any substantive change to the political system.   But a flag is more than a "brand".  A flag  is a political statement.   A crude, simplistic political statement, but a political statement for all that.   The current flag plainly asserts New Zealand's colonial relationship with Great Britain.   The "Titman" flag is also clear in its political symbolism.  The southern cross establishes continuity with the current flag existing regime.  The colours, red white and blue, are immediately associated with flags of Britain and the United States.   However the Union Jack has gone, to be replaced by a stars and stripes design, which has closer symbolic associations with the union flag of the United States.   The Titman flag would be embraced by pro-American modernists and would find at least grudging  acceptance from pro-British traditionalists, but would appeal largely to those of Anglo-Saxon descent, and conservative political views.

The various fern frond designs would find favour with the less politically conscious, particularly among the working classes, while the Hundertwasser flag and various koru themed flags would appeal to the those among the liberal middle classes who can be described as "cultural nationalists".   Then of course there is the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, which is the flag of choice for Maori nationalists and a considerable body of pakeha sympathisers.

If there is to be a new New Zealand flag, the final choice will be made on political rather than aesthetic grounds.    The Hundertwasser flag, and the various forms of the "silver fern on a black ground" design derived from sporting emblems fail the test because they have no clear political associations.   They do not acknowledge the historical connection between the New Zealand state and the Anglo-American world order, and neither do they express a populist or indigenous political tradition.

The British resident, James Busby, first offered the people of New Zealand a flag, later to become the flag of the United Tribes, in 1834.   That first New Zealand flag was forcibly replaced by the Union Jack in 1840, and then by the current New Zealand ensign in 1902.   In the nineteen sixties the American Clive Titman  offered New Zealand a new "red, white and blue/stars and stripes" flag.   In the nineteen seventies, the Austrian, "Frederick" Hundertwasser proposed his own design and now, in 2010, the Australian media corporation APN has proposed a new flag for New Zealand, while appearing to be uncertain as to just what form the new flag should take.   The common thread running through the history of New Zealand flag design is that it is a process initiated and driven by outsiders whose  principal motive has been to promote the influence of one or another foreign power within New Zealand.

Rather than joining in the debate over the most suitable design for a new New Zealand flag, we should be questioning whether New Zealand should have a flag at all.   Over the past two centuries various well meaningtforeigners have attempted to persuade us that we would benefit from the introduction of a flag, or a new flag as the case may be.    But the world would get along quite nicely without a New Zealand flag.  On those occasions when a New Zealand athlete wins a podium place at the Olympic games, a bare flagpole would constitute a more eloquent and meaningful statement.

Flag cults are characteristic of democratic societies which have run off the rails and become obsessed with the grandeur of empire.   The United States, Britain, France and Germany have all been afflicted by the phenomenon at some stage in the past century, with consequences which range from farcical to catastrophic.   I believe it is no accident that the call for a new New Zealand flag comes from those who ascribe to the new world order of the United States of America, where flag fetishism has been taken to unprecedented extremes.

There are those in the world who will honour, salute and pledge allegiance to "the flag".  There are those who will kill for the flag, and those who will die for the flag.  There are those who will wrap themselves in the flag, and those who will fly it from their houses, schools, town halls, bridges, shops, factories, cars, buses and trains.  But whatever anyone should come up with in the way of a new "national" flag for New Zealand, we would do better to simply ignore it.   We have serious issues which need to be addressed reasonably and dispassionately.  The last thing we need at this particular time is a cult of the flag.