God Save the Flag vs God Defend the Flag?

The story of our national anthems might provide guidance for how to proceed with the flag.

A recent Victoria University graduation ceremony invited everyone to sing The National Anthem. As we lustily, but not tunefully, sang God Defend New Zealand, I avoided the thought that while pedants would point out that New Zealand had two national anthems there are few pedants left in our universities. Instead the conservative in me, which like Edmund Burke favours organic change, reflected on how the national anthem, God Save the Queen, has morphed into God Defend New Zealand. I was not able to find an authoritative description of the transition, so I am going to have to fill some of the gaps with my memory – corrections welcome.

By the 1960s, New Zealanders were appalled that when one of them won Olympic gold GSQ was played just as if a Brit had won. The 1977 compromise was that GSQ, which had been the national anthem since 1840, would continue but that GDNZ would also be one too. GSQ was to be played in the presence of monarchs, their representatives and their relatives. On other occasions it would be GDNZ. The change seems to have been by government fiat for I have been unable to find a relevant statute or regulation.

I do not know how many countries have two national anthems, but over time the deuce has been forgotten except by pedants and, no doubt, somebody in the Department of Internal Affairs who deals with things monarchical. For most New Zealanders there is, today, but one national anthem.

Our current version is not that designated in 1977. Hinewehi Mohi sang GDNZ (Aotearoa) only in te reo before the All Blacks versus England match at the 1999 Rugby World Cup . After the usual hubbub we settled down to sing the first verse in Maori, the second in English. All very Burkean; perhaps one day a third verse in a Pasifika language may be sung on appropriate occasions.

The relevance to the flag debate will not have escaped the reader. The anthem change did not come from statute or referenda, nor was it abrupt. Perhaps something like that would be ideal for the flag. We might have a national ensign with the Union Jack on display for things monarchical and a different flag for other occasions.

The difference is that there was a well-agreed alternative to GSQ. It had been around for a hundred years when Thomas Bracken’s poem was put to music. I do not recall any challengers – except wits who wanted Peter Cape’s Down the Hall on Saturday Night. (Subsequent proposals include Pokarekare Ana, surely a song rather than an anthem, and Dave Dobbyn’s Loyal, which is bereft of any New Zealand content.)

This Burkean is uncertain as to what happens next; that is the nature of organic growth. I take it the Lockwood design is out, rejected in a referendum. I did not like it when I saw it flapping in the wind – that black bit next to the flagstaff did not work. I am also told that the fern itself was too complicated – what on earth is the symbolism of its 37 points? But it was internationally distinctive in the way the red peak flag was not; foreigners would see no confusion with any other nation’s flag – a big objection to the current one, which those who should know better have muddled with Australia’s.

My guess is the next stage is for individual New Zealanders to put up a second flag of their choice. Over time – 100 years? – out of that diversity we would converge on one that captures our imagination sufficiently to become the one (or strictly the two). I must say I appreciated the effect of a couple of flags flying together. Unlike some nations; we are not a flag people and rarely fly them.

The story of the GDNZ teaches us also that the flag needs a Polynesian/Pacific element. (Ferns are not unique to New Zealand.) Some people’s second – or first – flag will the Tino Rangatiratanga one but even though it is striking. given its exclusiveness, it is unlikely ever to be the nation’s choice, It was designed by a a collective of Maori women artists especially Linda Munn, Hiraina Marsden and Jan Dobson Smith – pity that referendum committee did not consult them. (Incidentally this stolid Burkean preferred as the Maori flag the first ever New Zealand flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand – St George’s cross with the Southern Cross in the top left quadrant – a version of which was used by the New Zealand Company. But its historical appeal is outweighed by aesthetics.)

Do I have a preference? I’ve long liked simply replacing the Union Jack in the current one by a koru while retaining the blue sea and red Southern Cross. Perhaps we could have a host of flags, with the same sea and Southern Cross format but different symbols in the upper-left quadrant. The Maoist in me says let many flags bloom.