Choosing a flag

A happy family
A happy family

As nation branding, and national identity, becomes of ever growing interest to policy-makers, the emblems and element that constitute the identity of a nation becomes of similar interest. Beyond coats of arms and other institutional symbols, a flag is among the more powerful such elements.

So what does it say about your nation’s identity when 25% of your flag is dedicated to another country’s? That’s what one former British colony, New Zealand, is trying to grapple with.

The British Empire used an especially adept brand endorsement system, effectively reserving the upper hoist canton of any of its colonies and companies’ flags. It was an effective system at creating alignment and authority over far-flung territories, and to signal to any would be attacker this was a ship of the mightiest Empire.

A selection of Blue Ensigns, not all national flags, from Wikimedia commons
A selection of Blue Ensigns, not all national flags, from Wikimedia commons

Nowadays, it has now become, at best, in many Commonwealth nations a burdensome reminder of colonial past, and at worse a source of confusion, especially for neighboring countries with similar flag. Most notably, Australia and New Zealand. The Wall Street Journal offers a humorous and useful quiz on the topic.

Cyathea dealbata, or silver fern
Cyathea dealbata, or silver fern

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, suggested making it a referendum issue in the upcoming elections, trying to find an alternative to the blue ensign. It has ignited a national conversation about which flag would suit the country best. Some suggest minimal edits, such as the removal of the UK’s Union Jack, while some argue for a bold rethinking of the symbol. The silver fern, a plant endemic to New Zealand and a commonly recognized symbol of the country, is a strong contender.

According to Māori legend, the silver fern once lived in the sea. It was asked to come and live in the forest to play a significant role in guiding the Māori people.

Māori hunters and warriors used the silver underside of the fern leaves to find their way home. When bent over, the fronds would catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest.

The silver fern (Cyathea dealbata) has come to embody the spirit of New Zealand. This distinctly New Zealand symbol is considered a badge of honour by the people, products and services of our country that carry it. (source)

Kiwis are debating what their new flag should be
Kiwis are debating what their new flag should be

A parallel

Canada Red Ensign
Canada’s de facto flag until 1965. Fought under in two World Wars, it was never meant as a national flag
Lester B. Pearson unveils the final design for Canada’s flag

As it turns out, New Zealand is going through a very similar process to the one Canada went through in the sixties, when it decided to rid itself of its ‘Red Ensign’ for the now famous Maple Leaf flag, or ‘unifolié’.  A vigorous, almost yearlong debate, where Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson eventually opted for an elegant solution, after an outpouring of design suggestions, many still including the Union Jack, some incorporating a more historical fleur de lys, some a beaver. The conservative party led a staunch opposition to the change; to them the removal of the British Union Jack was especially vexing.

The CBC Archives highlights the flag being hoisted around the world:

A friend recently gave me a placard that he found in his grandmother’s attic explaining the then new Canadian flag, with a quadrilingual explanation that reads as such:

The maple leaf flag became the National Flag on February 15, 1965, replacing the Canadian Red Ensign which, for a number of years, had been authorized by the Government as the appropriate flag to be flown within and without Canada whenever place or occasion made it desirable to fly a Canadian flag.

The National Flag was proclaimed by the Queen of Canada following the adoption of Resolutions recommending the new flag in both Canadian Houses of Parliament.

Red and white are the official colours of Canada while the maple leaf has long been a Canadian emblem.

This flag was then turned into the basis for the government’s pioneering and comprehensive 1970 Federal Identity Program, and has provided Canadians since then a clear vision of Government’s role in their affairs.

Government of Canada Logo
The Government of Canada has a consistent identity program featuring the maple leaf flag prominently

Already in use

NZ-immigration NZ-educationNew Zealanders already see their government harboring the silver fern. Both the Immigration department and the Education Ministries have taken to using the silver fern in their logos, and it is easy to see a consistent system emerging. The symbol has also been used in other official uses, especially in public facing usages such as immigration visas and the new Passport design, which you’ll see wielded by any Kiwi in airports around the world.

NZ passport
New Zealand’s new passport design could be a blueprint for a new flag, another beacon of kiwi identity abroad.

The symbol is also associated internationally with New Zealand’s athletic teams, most notably the All Blacks national rugby team, but also football’s All Whites, both sporting the silver fern and promoting it as the image of the country abroad.

All Blacks
New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team performing Ka Mate maori dance
New Zealand's Mark Paston in action during the All Whites football team training run.
New Zealand’s Mark Paston in action during the All Whites football team training run.

Its use in sports and commercial uses is actually used by opponent of the silver fern’s use on the flag, as they consider it might cheapens the flag.

The debate promises to go on, with many designers participating in the fray. It seems that if a country has a symbol that is highly recognized, both domestically and internationally, there already is a success at work. Whether the flag comes to endorse it might not matter in the end.

Further reading