By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Institute of Commonwealth Studies
Hugh Segal, formerly a Canadian senator and member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group from 2010-11, remembered the debate concerning Canada’s change of flag: ‘That 1963-65 fight over the flag was a very intense one, because it was basically a fight that said Canada was now sufficiently mature that we could remove the Union Jack from the corner of our flag, and nobody would die.’ Fifty years later, another Commonwealth country – New Zealand – is undergoing a similar process – a process that lacks the intensity of the Canadian experience and appears instead to be defined this far by a sense of apathy.
On 15th December 2015 New Zealand confirmed the winner of an 8 month long process in which the public was asked to design a potential new flag. The flag that bested over 10,000 entries is titled ‘Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue)’ and designed by Kyle Lockwood. Lockwood’s flag will be pitted against New Zealand’s current flag in a referendum in March 2016. While it is similar to the current flag, Lockwood’s design replaced the Union Jack with a silver fern, a symbol closely associated with many New Zealand sports teams, particularly the beloved All Blacks rugby team. Of all the 40 flags on the shortlist, only one included a visual reference to the Union Jack, while the silver fern, Silver Cross constellation and Maori koru featured prominently throughout the entries. The process has not been particularly popular in New Zealand, where the long time period and reported NZ$ 26m cost of the proceedings have come under scrutiny. Several unscientific polls suggest New Zealanders would prefer to keep the current flag. However it is understood that a new flag is important in moving forward from the colonial past, and ensuring the New Zealand flag is no longer confused with the Australian version. Significantly, while the call to remove the Union Jack from the flag has been made, there has been no similar push to change the status of the Queen as the head of state of New Zealand .
In the Commonwealth only 4 of the 53 member states still have a Union Jack incorporated into their national flag: Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Tuvalu. However, spurred on by their neighbours, there is a renewed interest in changing the Australian flag, while Fiji is currently in the final stages of a – delayed – decision on a new flag. The only Commonwealth country holding steadfastly to its miniature Union Jack is Tuvalu. In 1995 the Union Jack was removed from the national flag, however the move proved so unpopular that in 1997 the government reverted back to the original flag. It appears that in the not too distant future, Tuvalu may be the only Commonwealth state with a Union Jack incorporated into its national flag. This would mark a significant change since the early years of the Commonwealth. The New Zealand Herald produced a useful graphic that depicted change in Commonwealth flags over the years, from the 20 iterations of Union Jack plus national symbol to a slew of colourful, distinctive flags that more accurately depict the diversity of the Commonwealth. While Commonwealth countries continue to work together in a family of sorts with their (mostly) shared history of British rule, it appears they are eager to assert their own identity separate from the Crown.