If you’ve felt uneasy about the new flag debate, this might be why. A flag, says a University of Auckland geographer, is supposed to be something that defines us as a people in our place, not an exercise in market branding. After a prestigious Marsden Grant looking at the development of Brand New Zealand, Associate Professor Nick Lewis says that any exploration of what our nation is, and what it might mean, shouldn’t reduce entirely to selling more stuff.
Do you think we should just keep our existing flag?
I’m not sure that that is the right question. A few weeks ago columnist James Griffin dismissed the debate as a WTF moment. Great satire, and spot on in challenging the way the debate has been conducted. Yet, it is important periodically to ask who we are and what we would like to be. Thinking about our flag is a way of engendering that discussion.
The debate has encouraged people to ask about how we are changing; and to pose questions like do we want Māori motifs to represent us, or to what extent are we still part of the commonwealth? Many of the suggested designs themselves reveal a maturity in our thinking in this regard, even if many of the tweets and much of the wider media commentary about the flag do not.
Is the debate happening in the wrong way?
There is something paradoxical about reducing debate over our national identity to a series of individualised statements followed by a referendum. Tweets and posts about ‘what we stand for’ may be democratising, but are far from the collective exercise necessary to actually answer the question.
Which takes me to my most important concern – are we really debating the right questions? Is a contest over the design of a new flag the right way to discuss deeper long-term debates about constitutional reform? As we have this contest we are busy ceding sovereignty to free trade agreements and selling more national assets (public and private) to foreign interests, both crucial concerns with respect to what the flag represents. And we are being distracted, in my opinion, by a clever third term government from material issues such as social housing, rising inequality, and the environmental consequences of ramped up resource development.
Much of my own research involves trying to reimagine economic development in a world of free trade where New Zealand is being constructed as a flat surface upon which global and local companies accumulate capital. Whether jobs are created, social infrastructure sustained, and communities built is incidental. The question for me in the flag debate is: to what should I, as a scholar, and we, as a nation, commit in terms of trying to encourage and build something better?
This offers a much better starting point for the debate than whether the existing flag is a good brand, or what image to put on the flag.
So our flag shouldn’t be about branding?
A flag is not about selling us to the world. It’s a statement made to ourselves as well as others about where we have come from, who we are and what we want to be. Brands are designed to sell stuff. They don’t have gravitas and don’t speak of material struggles and aspirations. If the flag is supposed to be something to which we can commit and to represent a form of government to which we subject ourselves, we need to speak more directly to our history and our future and our aspirations.
The question of economic nationalism is important here. It’s no accident that the flag debate follows on from the development of Brand New Zealand and the 100% Pure campaign in particular, and that it’s led by a group of celebrity New Zealanders and brand developers. New Zealand’s nation branding has led the world in its sophistication, orchestration and the quality of its production values. It has developed the narrative of the edgy little nation that punches above its weight in global settings and social spheres from sport to the arts and the economy, and converted it into a compelling set of images resting on magnificent environmental aesthetics. There is much to celebrate in this, not least the absence of militarism. So there is no doubt a certain coming of nation in questioning the flag, but there is also a playing out of what I call economic nationalism – selling ourselves to the world for investment capital and export revenues fronted by Brand New Zealand.
Equality was one of the most common words people shared on the government website, standfor.co.nz. What does that tell you?
It’s mythical to think that equality is now a word that describes us. All the figures suggest that over the last 20 years New Zealand has become increasingly unequal. At the same time more of New Zealand is owned by non-New Zealanders.
But it is positive that the term ‘equality’ is still part of a national mythology. And there is the Kiwi dream to hold onto. If you’re a middle class, house-owning New Zealander, this is a great place to bring up your children and a relatively good western nation in which to sit outside the dominant social norms of whiteness, fitness and heterosexuality. But that’s not equality and does little for the large numbers of New Zealanders who cannot get jobs here, and will not live out their lives beneath our flag, even if they continue to support the All Blacks.
If you sat offshore and thought about New Zealand you’d get a very strange sense of what the nation is like for most of us. The small nation at the end of world punching above our weight is a very persuasive discourse – we have our opera star, our mountain climber, our scientist, and our philanthropist, and we are all athletic, healthy and good looking, sipping wine in our vineyards or tramping about in our rugged but accessible wilderness. This is a form of nationalism that doesn’t draw on historical relations; it doesn’t exist anywhere else and it’s very different to a more confident Australian understanding of nation. There is something about our promotion of ourselves that screams ‘look at me, I’m here, I count, and I’m now’, which does suggest a lack of confidence.
Should we put our aspirations on our flag?
There’s a tension between aspiration and struggle. I worry that branding expunges struggle, contradiction and the less pleasant, more difficult stories. We need a balance between being aspirational politically and socially and telling a story about ourselves that recognises the challenges.
I do like the attempt in some of the flag suggestions to incorporate Tino Rangatiratanga symbolism into the flag and thus to represent the constitutional struggles that have come to grip the nation once again over the last 30-40 years. Indeed, this ought to be the only reason why we are contemplating a change of flag. But those struggles are far from settled and there is little evidence that the flag debate has properly addressed how they and other struggles might be accommodated and represented. My own feeling is that a change of flag is, at best, premature and, at worst, branding a product for which the qualities are not fully tested.
If we are serious about changing our flag, let’s pay the money, but not for a brand development exercise or a drawing competition. Let’s have the deeper debates about our constitution, our relations with each other and our relations to the rest of the world, and in a much more public way. Let’s do this over an extended period of time. Then let’s park how we represent this for 20 years, and come back to it then – hopefully not in anyone’s third term.
These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.