The power of a flag has been thrown on the world stage in the wake of the apparently race-related murder of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17. And as the debate over whether to finally banish the Confederate flag — an innocent symbol of Southern pride to some, an abhorrent remnant of slavery and racial subjugation to others — to the history books continues to rage, a lesser-known but no less heated discussion in New Zealand demonstrates the tribulations associated with attempting to replace such long-standing symbols of collective identity.
The New Zealand flag, which currently features a Union Flag (commonly known as the Union Jack) and the four stars of the southern cross, has long drawn criticism for including what some consider a symbol of colonial repression. Tens of thousands of indigenous Maoris died following the arrival of white settlers in the 18th century. The idea of an alternate flag, meant to more fully represent contemporary New Zealand, was first proposed in the early 1970s, and a two-part flag referendum to decide the issue has been introduced for 2015–16.
An open call for submissions, which runs until July 16, has resulted in designs ranging from simple and classic to crass and quirky. Many include the silver fern, which has long been an unofficial national symbol; others highlight traditional Maori designs or incorporate the Union Jack, a nod to the country’s legacy of European immigration. One submission shows a whale with a sheep and kiwi on its back. Another, suggested by a Twitter user in jest, simply says “Not Australia.”
A panel of New Zealanders from all walks of life, including intellectuals, athletes, politicians and business executives, will help choose four finalist designs for part one of the referendum in late 2015. The winner will go head to head with the original flag in the final vote, to take place in March 2016.