Gordon Campbell on the flag campaign   25 Aug 2015

Gordon Campbell on the flag campaign

So far, the public has treated the government’s flag campaign with something between disinterest and disdain. Most New Zealanders have instinctively seen through the marketing hype involved. Basically the flag campaign is a ‘feel good’ bit of self-promotion for the government and concocted to enable Prime Minister John Key to wrap himself in the national emblem, at taxpayer expense. The flag campaign format will play out like one of those TV reality shows whereby a series of designs gets voted off the island, until – finally – the public is invited to choose a future with the surviving new contender, or with their current old reliable.

So yes….the flag campaign is the mother of all diversions. Yet we’re stuck with it now, and it is going to commandeer a ridiculous amount of media time over the coming months, and into the summer silly season. There is always a certain grisly interest in watching a country go through the motions of choosing their national emblem. The effort does say something about national identity and constitutional process, even when - or because – those elements are being utterly degraded en route.

Last year, the vote on Scottish independence saw Britain only narrowly avoid having to remove the Cross of St Andrew from the Union Jack. That close shave might explain why – in one of its ‘most read’ articles last week- Britain’s Guardian newspaper published the current long list of New Zealand’s own 40 contenders to replace the Union Jack. Next month, that list will get whittled down to four semi-finalists. After a postal vote in November picks a winner, that design will then enter a run-off in March against the current flag.

There’s a reason why most of the current New Zealand flag contenders look more like corporate logos. We do seem to be engaged in choosing a logo for a brand, not a flag for a country. To that end, Key has been busily portraying the current flag debate as a means of monetizing the national symbol. An effective flag design, he has argued, could be worth “billions” to this country’s marketing efforts abroad. Wow. Because its all about the money and the market, right? Key’s close identification with the flag campaign is likely to prove divisive; and many may vote for the current flag if only in defiance of this whole cynical circus. But then, this government governs for a majority and disregards the rest – and it uses the language of unity only to maintain that majority. On balance, the flag exercise will have served that purpose for National, at taxpayer expense.

The flag campaign also offers a pantomine of patriotism. A readily recognizable new emblem could also inspire increased levels of patriotism, Key suggested, especially among the young. In his view, a new flag might even help us attain the levels of nationalistic fervour seen in Australia and USA ( To Key, that would be a good and desirable thing.) The price tag for the campaign? About $26 million. Arguably, that’s a total waste, given the pressing demands on the public purse in health, housing, workplace safety etc. Tellingly, we will get a vote on the nation’s logo, but not on the other crucial policies to do with national identity that will tie future governments – like say, the contents of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. Only the adults in the Beehive, as Trade Minister Tim Groser put it recently, should get to decide that kind of really important stuff. We just get to choose the colour and design of the wrapping paper.

Talking about patriotism and a sense of identity….The new flag may be being touted as a symbol of national identity, yet there has been strikingly little debate about the identity in question. Logically, one would have expected New Zealand to have worked out the constitutional issues first – a republic, or not? The Queen as head of state, or not? - and then adopted a flag design best able to express that identity. Instead, we’re doing it the other way around. First we choose a flag, then we (maybe) get to decide (sometime in future?) what our flag is supposed to represent. Maybe at some future date we might have a government able not only to choose a logo, but willing to conduct a national debate on what we want our flag to mean. constitutionally. At least the current flag reflects our current constitutional arrangements, like them or not.

True, as Key says, some countries have re-designed their flag and remained in the Commonwealth. Canada chose to do so and it has been the poster child for a successful transition to a new flag. A new flag campaign was floated by an embattled minority government in 1964, and the maple leaf design was speedily chosen and adopted, virtually within a year. Historically, the maple leaf’s role in Canadian military and political traditions had dated back at least to the 1860s, and by some literary/cultural measures to the 1700s. In important respects, the current maple leaf flag was also an adaptation of a prior Canadian military flag.

Point being…in New Zealand, no comparable tradition surrounds the silver fern, which is primarily a rugby logo. Regardless, the fern seems to be emerging as the favoured symbol ahead of the koru, kiwi and the Southern Cross. The silver fern does feature on this country’s military gravestones, and (especially) on the sports field, but only in the last 20-30 years has it been promoted as a design element for the national flag. As I said, this process is about the design of a logo, not a flag.

Talking about design though for a moment….Canada’s maple leaf flag is a useful reminder that flags are not simply a logo on a page, or a billboard. They appear mainly on flagpoles, and that puts special demands upon a design. The eleven-pointed maple leaf depiction chosen in Canada for instance, was reportedly among several variants subjected to wind tunnel tests beforehand, to find the least blurry version in high wind conditions. Moreover, the maple leaf design framed by red panels “reads” the same from side to side, and from the front and behind. One can only hope that someone in our selection process will ensure that the final design chosen here will have been tested not just on the page – but also for how it appears on a flagpole, in the breeze.

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