Feelings are flying high as people prepare to vote on New Zealand’s flag in the referendum, which opens tomorrow.
Many war veterans on the island will be voting against changing the flag, says Waiheke Returned Services Association secretary manager Brendan Demchy.
The issue came up at a recent Waiheke RSA lunch for about 60 veterans who have served in wars, such as the Vietnam War and World War II.
“They all served underneath that flag. When they look back at their country, the flag is one of the things they look back on.
“The old flag has a history and it’s unique to us – it’s our flag and it has been for a long time,” he says.
Keeping the current flag is a way of honouring those who have served under it, says Mr Demchy.
While he understands the need to settle a debate that has continued for years over the country’s flag, he says it is “disrespectful” to veterans not to include in the first referendum an option to keep the current flag.
The New Zealand RSA has called on people to vote in the referendum without ticking one of the five alternative flag options.
Instead, people can write “I vote for the current flag” and their vote will be counted as an informal vote.
A second referendum will be held in April next year to formally gauge whether people want the new flag design that wins in the first round, or to keep the current flag.
The winning design from the second binding referendum will become New Zealand’s flag.
Mr Demchy says his personal opinion is that none of the five alternative designs is better than the flag New Zealand has been flying on ships since 1869 and as its national ensign since 1902.
In contrast, the founder of Facebook’s Waiheke Island People’s Parliament, Hans Versluys, and his partner, gardening expert Ewen Sutherland, are in favour of the red peak flag.
The design by Aaron Dustin reflects a Maori taniko pattern and represents the Southern Alps in white, the earth in red, night in black, and the blue of dawn.
“For me it represents the country and nature.
“The current flag is an historic relic from colonial times – it signifies a past we’ve moved on from. We’re no longer part of Britain – a quarter of our flag doesn’t need to represent another country,” says Mr Versluys.
Mr Sutherland agrees, saying his family fled from the Scottish village of Sutherland in 1813, when the English Duke of Sutherland forced people from their highland homes to make way for sheep farms.
“I’m a sixth generation Kiwi on both sides, but I have no particular affiliation with the Union Jack. Let’s have a new flag,” says Mr Sutherland.
The lack of Maori symbolism in the current flag is one point that counts against it for Mr Sutherland and Mr Versluys.
The couple say New Zealand’s flag is also too similar to the flag of our friendly rivals across the Tasman.
The Australian flag has a Union Jack and six white stars, while ours features a Union Jack and four red stars.
Mr Versluys says the “hynoflag” – a black and white koru design – has some merit, but the “busy combinations of ferns, stars and colours” in some of the flag designs make them less than appealing.
Red Peak looks like a “real flag”, the couple says.
The design was not included in the initial four selected, but following public outcry, the Green Party pressured the government to include it as a fifth option in the referendum.
“Red Peak is distinctive – if you hang it between 100 other flags at the United Nations, it will be very recognisable from a distance,” says Mr Versluys.
The flag referendums come at a massive cost of $25.7 million, and changing flags at government buildings and on defence force uniforms could cost another $3 million or more.
Voting papers should be arriving in the mail and will ask, “If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?”
People will be asked to rank the five options in the first referendum, which opens on 20 November and closes on 11 December.
By Rose Davis