15 years ago I embarked on a peculiar project - to give a letter grade to each of the flags of the world’s countries. This raised a number of difficult questions: what exactly is a country? Is Wales a country? Is Western Sahara a country? (In 2000 I went by the entities whose flags were listed in the Times Atlas of the World) Also, can anyone remember which Congo is which? What exactly are the names of the the countries that most people (outside Greece and China respectively) refer to as Macedonia and Taiwan? What should a flag do? Should it try to represent the history, geography, or presumed values of a country? Or it be neutral, abstract, and recognisable, like a brand logo?
Despite not learning what a country is, I learned at least three things: 1) A lot of countries have pretty terrible flags; 2) The citizens of many countries are willing to send large volumes of hate mail (large, here, means large enough to bring down a university’s email server, twice, at two different universities) to anyone who disrespects their flags, no matter how awful that flag is; 3) It’s actually quite hard to design a flag that is iconic, instantly recognisable, genuinely represents a country, and doesn’t have either a sheep or an AK47 on it; the “Red Peak” flag, surprisingly, manages to do so.
To be honest, I hadn’t paid that much attention to the current round of debate about the New Zealand flag. My expertise about flags had hitherto been limited to making sarcastic jokes about them, and that didn’t really seemed to be what was called for here. I certainly had serious views. On the one hand, a new New Zealand flag ought to minimally satisfy the aesthetic criteria I laid down in 2000: it ought to be iconic (no maps: are you listening, Cyprus? No animals, Dominica!); it ought to have no writing (Brazil!); definitely no weapons (Mozambique with the previously mentioned AK47). If you must do any of these things, don’t be the Falkland Islands and have a gigantic sheep riding on top of an island on top of a presumably cannon-bearing sailing ship, with a written slogan devised by English civil servants in the Crown Office of Naming Other People’s Countries.
On the other hand, a flag ought to do the really difficult things that a flag is supposed to do - to somehow represent the Spirit of the Nation, whatever that is. Or, more seriously, because there is no Spirit of the Nation, it ought to be capable of a plurality of interpretations that will make most, and ideally, all New Zealanders capable of identifying with it.
Before I saw the Red Peak flag, I was reluctantly in favour of one of the many variants of the silver fern. Reluctantly, because the silver fern is not quite iconic enough. The Canadian flag is a borderline in this respect, and part of what makes it work, I think, is the side-stripes. Other countries have already tried ripping that idea off and they should embarrassed (Norfolk Island, I’m looking at you, with your “Norfolk Island Pine” flag - could you not, at least, have chosen something that wasn’t a tree?) But then the Silver Fern is already associated with New Zealand through our national sports insignia, the black and white colour scheme marks it out as different from all other flags, and there were a number of variations of stylised silver ferns on offer.
Of the four current final candidates for the new flag, three are silver fern variants. The best, I think, is the black-white-blue silver fern. I don’t like the red-white-one because the silver fern loses its iconic significance when it is not on a black background; the black and white silver fern looks too much like a corporate logo (and the logo of a corporation too stingy to invest in a colour printer at that); and the black and white koru will inspire neither those remaining surly hippies who still favour the Hundertwasser flag, nor a new generation to join the Values Party.
Of course, the silver fern was cynically calculated to appeal to middle class 40-something Paheka expats like me. It offers an instantly recognisable Kiwi icon devoid both of backwards-looking references to our colonial past, and of overt references to Māori. Its sporting connection promises a shallow, but genuine, mass appeal, together with a reference to our native flora and fauna for those less enamoured of sport. (I was never that keen on Rugby Union — too many memories of my parents being pelted with broken bottles on Athletic Park during the Springbok Tours of the 80s; but one thing I think New Zealand — and New Zealand Rugby in particular — can be proud of is the way that we have triumphed over the social divisions of that era).
This, however, is not enough. New Zealand needs a flag that represents the bicultural nature of our society (never mind whether biculturalism or multiculturalism is more desirable); that reflects the historic contract between Māori and Pakeha that founded our society (whether just or unjust); that represents the unique geography and land-forms that have played an important part in our history and shared culture. It also needs a flag that is not revolutionary, but shows continuity with the past; that is independent of any sports code, and most important of all, is simple, iconic, and unique.
The Red Peak flag, amazingly, manages all of these. You have probably read that it represents Ranginui and Papatuanuku, the sky father and earth mother of Māori myth, that it represents both the volcanic geography of the North Island, and the mountains of the South. But the design goes far beyond that. The angular design with a white outline enclosing a red region refers to the unique red-within-white stars of the current flag; the blue-white-red stripes refer to the colours of the Union Flag and my colonial ancestry; while the black-white-red stripes refer to Māoritanga; juxtaposed they represent the ongoing negotiation between peoples that is embodied in the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. The colouration of the flag recalls the bill and plumage of the pūkeko, a much-loved native bird that is, like many New Zealanders, a relatively recent immigrant from Asia. The Red Peak is also a modified tricolour, representing universal ideals of justice, equality and human rights.
Y’know, I just made all that up (except for the bit about the pūkeko). I’m no expert on flags, just an opinionated guy with a dubious sense of humour. But it seems to me that what makes the Red Peak so great is that it has a genuine sense of history, and is capable of multiple interpretations to fit the multiplicity of values of New Zealanders. It is simple and original. And it does all that with no sheep, writing, or weapons.