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Flagging the Debate

With so many issues of political importance – the TPPA, sale of state housing, child poverty, and charter schools – considering the nation’s drapery seems almost immoral. The flag debate is political distraction par-excellence (as illustrated by our patron saint of topical comics, Toby Morris). Nothing will absorb the nation’s scant interest in politics like a debate over national aesthetics, and our media landscape simply isn’t capable of supporting a meaningful debate. The powers-that-be know this; the flag debate is carefully crafted political anathema.

The flag debate is an aesthetic ploy, not a deeper meditation upon the meaning of New Zealand nationhood. The flag could have been tied to a larger conversation around Crown-sovereignty and the possibility of establishing a republic. The process might have taken ten years, but at-least substantive issues would have been propelled into the public domain. Instead, the terms of the flag debate have been kept strictly aesthetic, and the nation re-purposed into an unruly focus group trying to agree on a favourite colour.

There was one problem right from the start; the assembled Flag Consideration Panel had a startling lack of aesthetic experience. It was left to the CEO’s of Saatchi & Saatchi and Xero to represent the visual arts of Aotearoa New Zealand. While Xero might have a stake in the CMYK/RGB compatibility of the designs, I struggle to see how they are an authority on the iconography of New Zealand. Perhaps the Government brought them in as the nation’s print consultants? John Key is always interested in a competitive quote from the private sector. And Saatchi & Saatchi; well… this is a branding exercise.

There are artists and cultural theorists with decades of experience exploring the country’s visual culture; and yet, no voices from the artistic community informed New Zealand’s flag referendum. A few of our artists have even made flags, including: Dan Arps – admittedly, the Artist’s flag-born diagram of a sperm impregnating an egg might not be a contender. Though the fact remains, if you want an anthem – you talk to musicians, if you want a constitution – you ask the lawyers, and if you want a flag – you involve the artists. Simple as this logic may appear, this aesthetic decision of national proportions was left to an All Black, an Olympian, a Lieutenant General, and someone called Julie Christie – whose only qualification seemed to be acting as CEO of Julie Christie Inc.

At first, the country seemed to be reserving judgment: “let’s see what our options are”, “who knows? Maybe there’ll be something to vote for”. Though when the Flag Consideration Panel finally revealed their selection, the flags hollow business was unfurled for all to see. In disgust, thousands of New Zealanders turned to the Red Peak, a handsome geometric design that also represented a protest vote for those disillusioned with the process.

Unfortunately, there is little chance of the referendum being derailed at this point, and since we have already spent the twenty-five million dollars to do this thing, let’s consider our options:

Silver Fern (Black & White) by Alofi Kanter


It was inevitable; a fern strapped onto a bed of patriotic black had to make it onto the short list. Unfortunately, and perhaps due to a legal challenge by the Rugby Union of New Zealand, the Silver Fern design has been made… weird. The leaves on this fern look big and dewy, the appealing simplicity of the fern has been derailed into a clunky assortment of shapes. This is not the maple leaf of New Zealand, nor the elegant stamp of the 1905 All Blacks; this is sabotage of the silver fern as an authentic option. The design deviates the necessary 20% in order to avoid legal scrutiny, because as John Key reminds us; this flag change “has got to be worth billions over time” in brand recognition. Now, you don’t go squander a profit like that over a lawsuit.

Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) by Kyle Lockwood


This is the visualisation of ‘middle-of-the-road’ in 21st century New Zealand. In the world of decisions by committee, this flag is a triumph of mediocrity. The flag is the early favourite for November, and analysts were quick to decode the political compromise imbedded: Labour’s fern on a red-background, paired with National’s southern cross on a blue-background. Most remarkably, the proportions of colour seem to correlate to the 2014 election result, as one analyst described it: “a flood of blue ascending to a concerned patch of quivering, fragmented red”. It has been said that a flag change is John Key’s legacy to New Zealand; well… what better memorial to the Meryl-Lynch banker than a sea of blue engulfing a slender island of red.

Koru by Andrew Fyfe


It would have been nice to have a koru design you could vote for. I’ve heard we even have a few good ones lying around. Alas, the only people that will vote for this koru are those seeking the effects of hypnosis.

Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) by Kyle Lockwood


The public could be mistaken for thinking they’d seen double. Indeed, it seems that the only clear winner of the 2015 Flag Referendum is Kyle Lockwood. The Panel was so convinced that Kyle was our man that they gave us two to choose from; generous, very generous. What else is there to say? If you didn’t like the red and blue one, then you can still vote for the black and blue one. Here, the Panel has accounted for the smallest margin of difference that is perceived to exist in the mainstream.

While it seems that we are being given choice in the upcoming referendum, we are not being given options. The credibility of the referendum rested on the panel being able to produce four distinct designs. The obvious buffet of national semiotics would have included a fern, koru, Southern Cross, and a geometric arrangement (such as the popular Red Peak). Instead, New Zealand got two Lockwood’s, a magician’s trick, and a mangled plant to boot. While aesthetics is a subjective realm, the current selection of flags doesn’t even come close to representing the spectrum of New Zealand subjectivities.

What will happen when New Zealander’s post their ballots in November? My guess is one of the Kyle Lockwood’s will take the cake, and New Zealand will be asked to once again ‘have their say’, this time in a Lockwood versus current New Zealand Flag winner-takes-all showdown. The current New Zealand flag is the final contestant; a boss-level challenge for whatever piece of cloth makes it through the semi-finals.

The New Zealand Flag


The current New Zealand flag was not the first to be hoisted up the flagpole. Preceded by the flag of The United Tribes of New Zealand (the Crown-less entity that was prelude to the Treaty of Waitangi), Aotearoa’s first flag was motivated by the need to protect local ships with a recognised maritime signet. Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Union Jack became the staple cloth hanging on the young colony’s flagpoles. Though not all the Crown’s new ‘subjects’ acquiesced: including Hone Hika who chopped down the pole at Kororāreka an impressive four times.

The flag in its current form wasn’t actualised until the patriotic fervour of the Boer War, at which point a slue of committees and parliamentary directives set in motion another kind of flag debate. The form and shape of this new New Zealand Flag was again informed by maritime convention, though the addition of the Southern Cross alluded to some sense of site-specificity. Even without attending to the paramount issues of un-relinquished Maori sovereignty, the story of our flag seems… unsatisfactory.

Nation building is a clumsy business, and not entirely unlike watching a sausage being made. The process engenders little of the naturalised belonging that flags are thought to conjure in their citizens. At-least the current flag embodies a self-conscious – often mistaken for Australia – mentality in New Zealand, and illustrates our shared historical neurosis. If like me, you prescribe to a flawed and tortured conception of nationhood, then a flag with problems is a correctly troubled artefact.

New Zealand is an imagined community, bound together by a figurative past that is victim to ad-men and populists. There is a rift in our past, one that continues to breed fear and uncertainty. The Waitangi Tribunal and state-efforts to revitalise Maori language represented meaningful strides toward reconciling a troubled past, and a flag could be apart of this conversation. Though dissociated from this history, the cloth will become apart of this nation’s historical amnesia.

Emil Dryburgh

AMENDMENT: the Writer incorrectly mistook Xero, a software accountancy firm, for Xerox, a company specialising in print solutions and document technology. The Writer would like to apologise for the error and clarify that the accountancy and IT sectors also lack aesthetic experience. 

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