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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

NZ's national colour is black

The discussion over whether New Zealand should change its flag should be a time to discuss whether we have outgrown our colonial ties with the Union Jack. Instead, the current squabble makes me question whether we have grown up.

Many opinion leaders seem bent on killing the debate by reframing the issue from one of national identity to one of process and cost.

None has yet reminded us that the dual referendum process differs little from that used to decide our electoral system. Although that started with a Royal Commission, the rest is the same.

The first referendum will provide a range of alternative options and the second will be a run-off between the current flag and the most popular alternative.

Few commentators give John Key credit for making the process so democratic and transparent. Australia, after Confederation, held a media-run competition and came up with their current flag in 1901. The next year, like a typical little brother, we adopted and adapted Australia's Southern Cross design without any debate.

Sixty-two years later, Canada followed a six week 'consultative' process, after which the political battle lines were drawn between the Prime Minister's preferred flag and the George Stanley design supported by the Opposition. The Stanley design won and the design was approved - not by public vote, but by Parliamentary proclamation.

The instigator for Canada changing their flag was the Egyptians not wanting the Union Jack on any flag flown in the Sinai during UN peacekeeping after the Suez Crisis in 1956. New Zealand troops adopted, and have worn ever since, a badge of the kiwi - on black.

Most of the other former colonies of the British Empire have adopted a unique flag. Only 22 retain the Union Jack. Of these, only Australia has a larger population than ours.

So, while other countries, like Fiji, consider their own flag options, they are watching what we are doing. They must be appalled. We should be embarrassed.

The cost of our process enrages many. "Why don't we spend that on child poverty?" the critics chant in union-orchestrated unison. Their emotion obscures the fact that government spends $152,000 a minute ($45,000 of that on a world class welfare system) and $26 million equates to less than three hours' spending.

All the Government needs to do to neutralize this objection is to recover the $26 million by building a levy/royalty into the cost of every flag. This would be like charging a passport fee to cover administrative costs. Once the target is reached, any extra revenue could be allocated to child poverty or ensuring that the Waitangi Treaty grounds are free for all - a win/win.

But no, here we are bickering on blogs and shouting over each other on talkback in t-shirt slogans. If the flag debate was a football game, we'd be whinging about the ticket price, booing the ref, and kicking the player without the ball when what we should be doing is taking a side, playing for it, or cheering for it.

As the author of a book about World War II, I have interviewed and consulted with war veterans, war criminals, war widows, widows of executed war criminals, constituents, submitters, political rivals, witnesses, victims, and leading experts.

I have found empathy and fact gathering to be essential elements in forming opinions.

The RSA's submission substituted fact with emotion. Not one New Zealand unit badge or war grave has ever featured a Southern Cross or Union Jack. Instead they display the silver fern.

While only one New Zealand flag ever crossed the sand at ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli, every New Zealand lemon squeezer hat was adorned with the twin silver ferns of the New Zealand Army cap badge.

The first time the New Zealand flag was flown in battle was from HMS Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate in 1939.

Maori leaders should be embracing the silver fern emblem. Maori came up with it - the koru unfurled and mature.

The New Zealand Native Rugby Team first wore the silver fern on black, which then became our national colour. The fern's root was the staple Maori diet, its silvery fronds a means of guidance under the moonlight. The fern was medicine, shelter, and together with its coiled baby koru, the mainstay of many ancient traditional patterns.

The colour of our flag shouldn't be an issue. Thirty-five other nations have red, white, and blue flags.

New Zealand is the only country whose national colour is black, and every other country recognizes this.

"But the ISIS flag is black!" some bleat. True. And the Te Tino Rangatiratanga flag is red, white and black - like the flags of Hitler's Nazis, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, and the most of the problem states of the Middle East.

Our current flag shares the same colours with those of the American Confederacy, Kim Jong-Un's North Korea and Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Our black sports uniforms have an intimidating advantage over opponents. Black is James Bond stylish, and on a flag it shines. No two colours contrast and stand out more than black and white.

No leader worthy of the name surrenders his nation's colours to a bunch of medieval terrorists. Black and white were our colours long before ISIS pinched them, and we can be confident that a black and white New Zealand flag will long outlast that murderous regime.

After all the moaners have exhausted themselves with their various distractions, constructive debaters will focus on the elements we want in our flag. We don't need to borrow other nations' colours or invent new emblems. We have our national colours. We have our national emblem.

We only need to debate which version of silver fern to use, set against which arrangement of black and white.

Former US President Woodrow Wilson wisely said, "If you want to make enemies, try to change something." In the case of the flag debate, we are our own worst enemy. If the present gutter level of debate continues, it will prove that we haven't grown up, and we deserve to be stuck with a paternalistic colonial relic as our national standard.

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