2016 has begun with New Zealand continuing to tiptoe – always seemingly reluctantly and certainly gingerly – around the issues of its identity and future.
The upcoming vote on the flag is the obvious current example. Changing our national ensign to represent something more in tune with contemporary New Zealand should have been a no-brainer, but, if the opinion polls are correct, such a result seems unlikely at this stage. Then we will be stuck with the current drab flag for another century or so, and the government will probably conclude that the lack of enthusiasm for even this modest change shows no public appetite for wider constitutional change, so that will also fall off the agenda, and we will remain in our national rut.
While the flag is but a symbol, the debate about its future is important. It should be an opportunity to engage all New Zealanders in discussing our values as a nation. In particular, it is important for young New Zealanders, many of whom will be too young to vote in the referendum, but will have to live with its outcome far longer than those of us who will be voting and making the decision. What do they think? What are our obligations to them when we vote? Surely the vote on the flag should be more than just the selfish expression of those who are older?
Of course, the ultimate objective of any constitutional reform project has to be the establishment of an independent New Zealand republic within the Commonwealth. In the meantime, there are other steps we ought to be considering as well. Changing the flag is but the first of these.
Amongst the others is the oath of allegiance. This has caused controversy in recent years because the current oath makes no reference to the Treaty of Waitangi. But it also continues to require allegiance to the Queen, which becomes more and more absurd as each year goes by. Surely a more logical solution would be to amend the oath to one of loyalty to the people and laws of New Zealand?
At the same time, we could look to replacing other antiquated British symbols with a few more relevant to contemporary New Zealand. For example, the Queen’s Birthday observance could be abolished in favour of a Matariki Day holiday, to serve as a possible National Day as well. The offensive Guy Fawkes Day could be replaced by Parihaka Day to honour the tradition of passive resistance New Zealanders have shown in many different settings over the years.
All these debates will be opportunities for the young people who are New Zealand’s future to have their say about the type of country they seek. In our role, as custodians of the present for the future, it will be our challenge to give them that opportunity.
A 2016 that embraces these ideas could be an exciting and significant year for New Zealand. But a year that continues to ignore them, will be no more than just one more – like last year and so many more before it. The years of almost, but not quite, and opportunities lost.