Flag Debate in New Zealand

11 02 2010

New Zealanders are debating whether they should replace their current flag (see below)

with one that does not make a reference to Britain. A number of designs are under consideration right now, but the country’s Prime Minister has endorsed this rather sharp design:

Some New Zealanders are opposed to changing their flag.  As a recent article in the New Zealand Herald points out, the ongoing debate in New Zealand parallels the great Canadian flag debate of the 1960s. The article quotes Canadian historian Christopher Moore. You can see some great clips related to the flag debate in the CBC archives website. I particularly like the one that shows Prime Minister Lester Pearson explaining to a group of jeering members of the Royal Canadian Legion how the new flag would promote unity between the different elements of Canada’s diverse population.

The campaign for a new flag in New Zealand has been spearheaded by Lloyd Morrison, a businessman who runs a successful international company. The fact a businessperson has raised this issue is significant, because flags are important to a country’s branding. In my view, Canada’s maple-leaf flag is perfect because it emphasizes the country’s best assets: great natural resources, lots of trees, fantastic opportunities for a variety of outdoor sports, things that are central to Canada’s identity. Branding a country is really important for tourism promotion, exports, as well as selling products to domestic consumers.

Some of the most successful Canadian companies also employ the trope of nature in marketing their products. For instance, Roots Canada Ltd. sells comfortable sweatshirts emblazoned with big beavers.  Roots products are more likely to be seen on subway trains than in national parks, but they play on Canada’s perception of itself as a country in tune with nature. It may be that when Canada trashed its old flag in 1965, it was giving up the opportunity to appeal to snobbish anglophile consumers in the United States.

There is some evidence that Canada did trade on its British connection for the purposes of tourism promotion. As late at the 1970s, the Province of Ontario’s tourism slogan for the US market was “We Treat You Royally”. (In 1979, Tourism Minister Larry Grossman told the Ontario legislature that the campaign associated with this slogan had been effective).  However, I would guess that these costs of scrapping the symbols of Britishness were more than offset by the benefits of  emphasizing Canada’s distinct selling points (trees, etc). After all, in an age of cheap airfare, it doesn’t make sense for Canada to try to appeal to the anglophilia of the “Masterpiece Theatre” crowd in the United States, since they can go to England and see the real Stratford for roughly the same money as it would take to drive to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. People overseas view Canada as one big national park filled with beavers and the odd canoe.

The only possible way we could improve Canada’s current flag would be to change the colour scheme to green and blue, which would emphasize summertime conditions and watersports such as waterskiing, canoeing, etc. The current red-and-white colour scheme reminds people of the fall, when maple leaves turn red, and winter, when everything is covered in drifting snow. (I know that some people come to Canada to ski, but most visits are in the summer).

Have a look at Prof. Catherine Carstairs’s great journal article “Roots Nationalism: Branding English Canada Cool in the 1980s and 1990sHistoire Sociale/Social History 39, no. 77 (May 2006): 235-255. (The article is ungated).

Anyway, I wish our friends in Middle Earth New Zealand well in their search for a new flag. I hope that their government realizes that there could be real economic benefits in changing their flag. As someone who occasionally watches rugby, I like the white fern on the black background.