Four New Zealand flag designs revealed

NZ Flags

Four new designs picked to contend with New Zealand’s current flag are revealed on Tuesday.

Malcolm must feel like a castle under siege right now, the air thick with eleventy zillion arrows of advice on what exactly “21st century government” implies. So, uh, here’s mine. Ban sprawl. Protect food lands. Reward renewables. And – if New Zealand can do it we can too – get a decent flag. Get a flag that reinvigorates the old, takes us forward, makes us proud.

I know what you’ll say. Flags, like republics, are trivialities. Mere symbols. Winged imagery. Australians, being pragmatists, prefer concrete achievements. Plus there are bigger things bleeping red. And that’s all true. But it’s also true that, when rapid directional change is needed, symbolism can have immense transformative power.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Australia is a surprisingly conservative country. We were slow to embrace the 20th century, with our major cities explicitly banning its quintessential form, the skyscraper, until the century was already half over. And we’ve been similarly laggard about the 21st century. For over a decade now we have turned our collective face against renewables, feminism, urbanism, indigenous integration and the future’s urgent call to tangle intelligently with the urgencies of life and survival.

But when we do change, we change fast. Sydney, between 1960 and 1970, transformed from an inward-looking quasi-European rail-centric brick city to a car-based modern metropolis careless of everything except its glorious, sparkling harbour. Our future-yearning, pent by fear and fustiness was, once released, unstoppable.

Same now. We’ve been hungry for leadership since Keating, craving someone to pursue the future rather than resisting it, who doesn’t embarrass us overseas or make us ashamed of being Australian. Perhaps, now that we have one, we’ll bound ahead with similar alacrity. Perhaps we’ll recall how much better not being ashamed can make you act.

A good flag could help. But what is a good flag? How do you design one, collectively, via clamorous democracy?

With difficulty, it seems. A notable feature of the NZ flag debate, now 18 months old, is how few of the 10,000-odd attempts to symbolise the nation actually rise above the dreary tameness of the corporate logo. Most suggest a privatised government entity had sex with a dairy company.

You might think that entirely apt. But a flag is not a logo. It’s not a poster or even a brand. A flag is heraldry. It’s a standard, meant not to sell but to inspire; to stimulate not our desire glands, but our sense of purpose. In a world that makes consumption the universal paradigm, this is hard for us to grasp.

Not surprisingly, then, good flags are rare, and usually as much found as made. America’s Stars and Stripes initially had the King’s Colours in place of stars (or mullets) and took its stripes, which Barnett Newman made so American, from the British East India Company. The Union Jack itself, created by royal decree in 1707, combined three earlier flags – St George’s red cross (England), St Andrew’s heraldic saltire, or diagonal cross (Scotland) and St Patrick’s saltire (Ireland). Brilliant flags both. Symbolism, symbolism.

But how to symbolise Australia? Who are we, actually?

One enduring NZ gripe about their flag is its similarity with ours. And we are similar; young, polyglot democracies as yet ungelled, comprising people who self-badge as ready, resourceful and robust. We both (now) have as PM a self-made tycoon capable of spearheading change.

But there are also significant differences. I used to think Kiwis were better at things you could do alone – poetry, painting, fashion, wine-making, mountain-climbing – and Australians were better at things (with the obvious exception of rugby) that required social cohesion. Newspapers. Opera. Politics. Corruption.

Now I wonder if it’s more about our relationship to substrate: to the land we occupy, and the people who were here first.

Where NZ has invested intensely with its land and its indigenous people, Australia languishes in denial. This means that NZ has a rich romantic tradition of work fiction, poetry and art that is, dark and strange, misted and creviced in a way that reflects both the land its indigenous culture. (I’m thinking R.A.K Mason. Hone Tuwhare. Janet Frame. Ralph Hotere. Colin McCahon. Keri Hume. Jane Campion. Eleanor Catton.)

Australia has its own rich and wonderful history, but we’ve never really managed to do respect. Mostly, we still regard the land as a mine, nothing if not for sale, while indigenous cultures – far from signing treaties and learning languages – we by and large ignore. Even now, I’d suggest, Australians feel more guilt than reverence for both the place and its people.

Where should this take the flag debate?

In NZ, a shortlist of four designs, all camels, will go to November’s stage-one referendum whose winner will, next March, meet the old flag in a sudden-death play-off. The shortlist comprises a mish-mash of: silver ferns (one so badly mauled it looks more like a kowhai), red-white-blue Britishness, black-and-white All Blackness, southern crosses and one Maori-esque koru, or frond.

There are also two blow-ins: the Wa Kainga, aka Red Peak, which PM John Key has resurrected but which I reckon would be improved by replacing the British navy with black. And there’s the Tino Rangatiratanga, a 1980s Te Kawariki land-protest flag, whose bold red-white-black graphic abstracts the founding myth of sky-father Rangi and earth-mother Papa, between whom mortal offspring wrangle.

Wikipedia’s list of Australian flag proposals is a horrible mash-up of green and yellow, stars and roos and ghastly ad-world boomerangs. The standout is Hundertwasser’s Down Under, in which Uluru hangs crimson above a single star. But we also have a readymade, whose powerful symbolism is up there with the Stars and Stripes. Yellow sun, black sky, red earth; Harold Thomas’ 1971 design, popularised by Cathy Freeman, it is unmistakably Australian.

Admittedly, taking that flag as Australia’s might seem a second theft of identity. But you could see it another way. In 1997 Thomas won copyright of his design so, to acquire it, Australia would need to negotiate, make reparations even. That way we’d get a treaty, as well as a flag. Tell me that’s not progress.