Late last week New Zealanders chose their preferred design for an alternative flag – if they are to have a new flag, that is. A second referendum in March will decide whether to keep the old flag or replace it with the new chosen design.
The results will be formally announced, but the race is now down to two very similar designs by the architectural technologist Kyle Lockwood. They each received over half a million first preference votes, out of 1.5 million votes cast.
As New Zealand compares its existing and potential flags, it’s worth discussing why the symbolism of the new design is so broadly appealing.
What lessons can Australia learn, as it periodically debates the possibility of updating its own flag?
The preliminary winner, shown below, incorporates the culturally significant silver fern, the familiar Southern Cross, and adds black to the traditional red, white and blue colouring.
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As a New Zealand citizen living in Australia, I received the referendum papers in the mail. After one look at the five choices given to voters I guessed that one of Kyle Lockwood’s two submitted designs (far left and far right on the flyer, below) would be the winner, most likely the one with the black top corner. My guess was right. Why?
This design allows New Zealanders to embrace a flag that is in many ways already familiar, and therefore provides a safe and gentle transition with nostalgic reference to the colonial past, combined with national pride in the existing symbol of the All Black rugby team.
Gone is the thorn in the side – the Union Jack – which as time passes relates less and less to contemporary New Zealand (or Australian) culture.
The four red stars of the Southern Cross remain. They are the recognisable anchor of national identity that have so far set the New Zealand flag apart from other Commonwealth flags such as the Australian.
As long as the stars persist a sense of continuity is retained. As for the white silver fern on a black background this image is already widely used to symbolise New Zealand as the visual identity of the All Blacks, arguably the world’s most famous rugby union team.
The question then is, what does the choice of this flag design tell us about New Zealand’s society and culture? Seen as one of the most progressive countries in the world, New Zealand has been in the vanguard of social change in many respects.
It was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in 1893, legalised same-sex marriage back in 2013, and – despite many shortcomings – in recent decades worked hard to integrate Maori culture and language into the “mainstream”.
Despite this, the result of the referendum tells of a nation that is still attached to its colonial past through the strong visual reference to the existing flag, and a nation where reference to a male-dominated sport takes centre stage over reference to the rich visual culture of the Maori people.
Though the silver fern is traditionally an important symbol within Maori carvings, art and tattoos, it is usually depicted in the form of the “koru”, the uncoiling fern leaf. The koru symbolises creation, renewal, and harmony. This spiral shape, which has become an embedded part, not only of Maori culture, but of New Zealand visual culture as a whole, is missing from the new flag design.
The intricate patterns of Maori symbolism have in recent times spread worldwide; tattooed on skin, and carried around the neck as bone or jade carvings across the globe. It is beautiful, powerful, and immediately recognised as uniquely New Zealand.
The koru is an integrated part of New Zealand visual culture. Of the five shortlisted flag designs, one does represent the koru, designed by Andrew Fyfe. Beautiful as it is the black and white shape is too minimalistic, too big a visual leap from the existing flag to be chosen by a majority of the population.
For a more Maori-inspired flag to succeed in the referendum, there would have had to be a design that visually bridges the colonial past, Maori culture, and contemporary New Zealand culture as a whole. When one looks at the 40-long list designs chosen prior to the short list of five flags, there are many with a koru design combined with the colour scheme and even with the stars of the existing flag.
Instead of favouring two very similar Kyle Lockwood designs, it would have been preferable to see at least one such combination as a choice in the referendum. By not including one of these designs in the shortlist, an opportunity has been missed for the potential new flag to be more representative of a progressive multicultural New Zealand, respectful to the past and embracing of the future.
As New Zealand chooses its potential new flag, a similar debate is taking place in Australia. An August article in the The Age suggests a flag with the kangaroo replacing the Union Jack (a subsequent article in the Sydney Morning Herald was less than kind to this suggestion).
This would in many ways be an obvious choice, for the same reasons that the silver fern was a popular choice in New Zealand. The kangaroo is already recognised as a symbol of Australia, particularly in relation to sport.
But such a design would, in a similar way to the New Zealand design, disregard Australia’s rich and ancient Aboriginal culture. Though the kangaroo has significant meaning to Aboriginal peoples, simply placing a kangaroo on the flag does not engage sufficiently with that rich, and loaded visual language.
Australia already has an Aboriginal flag, designed by Harold Thomas in 1971. The black representing the aboriginal people, the yellow the sun, and the red the earth and a spiritual connection to the land.
To be truly respectful to Australia’s Indigenous heritage the design of a new Australian flag would need in some way to integrate Aboriginal visual language and symbolism. Only then would the flag truly reflect the cultural richness of this great southern land.
You can view suggestions to a new Australian flag, or submit your own ideas here.
This feature originally appeared in The Conversation.