Changing the flag – from an Australian perspective

Australians are taking a keen interest in the New Zealand flag debate.

Australians are taking a keen interest in the New Zealand flag debate.  We’re interested because it raises the question of whether Australia should follow New Zealand’s lead and replace its Union Jack and stars with an emblem that better reflects our heritage and modern culture.

In many ways the flag debate mirrors the 1970s furore over our countries’ respective national anthems. Many people will no doubt be astonished that back then God Save the Queen was still the official national hymn for New Zealand and Australia and we used to have to stand in movie theatres while it was played before each screening.

There was popular unrest on both sides of the Ditch at this state of affairs. In 1974 under the government of Gough Whitlam, Advance Australia Fair was designated the anthem for all save Royal occasions. But two years later Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reinstated Her Majesty’s hymn while he engaged in a protracted testing of public opinion on the issue.

God Defend New Zealand became the Kiwi anthem in 1977, and Australia Fair was returned to its rightful place in 1984. Oddly, God Save the Queen still has official status in both countries; in New Zealand as the joint anthem and in Australia as the song for royal ceremony.

In choosing an indigenous song to represent the respective nations, both countries were asserting their independent sovereignty and expressing patriotism, as well as choosing words and music that better reflected the national identity.

Even so, back then a large number of Australians and Kiwis wanted to retain the old anthem, just as countless thousands in both countries today love our respective flags just as they are. Our soldiers died under those emblems; our sportspeople won world glory carrying the standard.

I understand and deeply respect these views. But I believe there's a history-defining opportunity for New Zealanders to vote for change. 

There is a strong business and national interest argument to be mounted in favour of a new flag. 

It is a rare opportunity to re-position New Zealand on the global stage in a way that the exceptionally clever and successful 100% Pure tourism campaign cannot. The flag is flown at all important international events and it becomes part of the New Zealand brand across the globe.

Export industries will benefit from such a move. Other countries and their people look at the Kiwi flag and often all they see is the UK’s Union Jack. By choosing a unique and quintessentially New Zealand emblem, the country will be better represented in international markets.

This is particularly important for the innovative and high-technology export sectors, which need to differentiate themselves from their international competitors. They also need to present their cutting edge credentials, which is hard to do when a major component of the ensign represents colonial history.

Tourism has just overtaken dairy as the country’s biggest export earner and the success of the industry rests on the strength of the brand. A flag is a country’s shop window and it’s important to have a standard that is instantly recognisable and speaks to the unique Kiwi identity.

There is no better exemplar of a country’s brand than its flag and a strong New Zealand brand will boost export sales, help get the New Zealand story out to the world and bring in more tourists.  In that sense it is more than just a flag; it is a broader national strategy that sits underneath it that is of real business value.

But the flag is more than just about business outcomes, as important as they are. A new flag is an opportunity to build patriotism and pride in the nation. It will energise New Zealanders’ awareness of themselves as Kiwis and inspire loyalty and engender understanding of what it means to be New Zealander.

These are aspirational qualities that are priceless.  I envy the opportunity New Zealand now has and look forward to the debate as it develops in Australia.

Alex Malley is chief executive of CPA Australia 

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