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Old flag could still fly, say campaigners

Thursday 30 Jan 2014 8:28 a.m.

Former soldiers who object to changing the flag could be appeased by continuing to use the current flag at commemorative events, say campaigners who want a new one.

Yesterday Prime Minister John Key said there may be a referendum at this year's general election on whether we should ditch the Union Jack and Southern Cross for something less tied to New Zealand's colonial past.

He's suggesting a silver fern, which also happens to be the favoured design of the NZ Flag Campaign.

"We're obviously very happy that there's going to be a vote and New Zealanders get a chance to have a say on this issue, which we think is an important one and one that needs to be decided democratically," says spokesman Lewis Holden.

The silver fern is also something Mr Key and arch-rival Labour leader David Cunliffe can agree on.

"That's my personal choice, but this is up to New Zealanders, not up to me – and I'm glad it's that way," Mr Cunliffe said on Firstline this morning.

But the current flag, which was formally adopted in 1902, means a lot to many New Zealanders – particularly those who have served overseas in the armed forces.

"Many of us lost very close friends and comrades when they served under that flag, and I think that's the most significant reason why we'd prefer to stay with it," says RSA national president Don McIver.

"We have this year the centenary of the commitment of New Zealand to the First World War. We had a million people and 18,000 of them died under this flag.

"I think we've got to give very serious consideration to the change before we step forward in that direction."

Those pushing for a new flag say Canada got it right when they changed theirs in the mid-1960s, allowing for the use of the old 'Canadian Red Ensign' flag at war memorial events.

"I absolutely understand that the current flag means a lot to [the RSA] and also those who are currently in the armed forces – I've got a number of mates who are in the armed forces myself," says Mr Holden.

"But I think it can be accommodated. [What the Canadians do] is they have their pre-1965 flag at a lot of their war memorials – we can do exactly the same."

Mr McIver says the RSA hasn't given the idea serious consideration yet, so hasn't ruled it out.

"In the event that there was a referendum and that the people spoke in significant majority, then we would have to look at those sorts of accommodations."

The silver fern, with the backing of the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and the NZ Flag Campaign is the clear frontrunner for a would-be replacement flag. But it has its own problems, says Mr McIver.

"The silver fern which we use at sports events is a logo, and it is an attractive one I guess for New Zealanders," he says.

"I'd just like to point out that the Royal New Zealand Air Force changed their roundel to the silver fern, and when they went overseas into environments where people didn't know them, they were asked why they had a white feather on their roundel."

But Mr Holden says Canadian soldiers had the opposite problem, which was solved by switching to a leaf.

"Every time the Canadian troops went overseas to go on peacekeeping missions they used to get shot at because they were confused with being British soldiers because of their flag."

Though it's backing the call for change, Labour says the timing of the renewed debate is suspicious.

"The week that National is desperately trying to get away from growing inequality that they are responsible for, they pull out of the bottom drawer a discussion that we could have had any week about whether or not we have a flag referendum," says Mr Cunliffe.

"People won't be fooled."

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says there should be a referendum, but not until there has been two-and-a-half years of debate; ACT's John Banks doesn't want it changed; Green Party co-leader Russel Norman says he has an "open mind"; and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia says she's not opposed to a referendum, but it's not a major issue for Maori. Mana's Hone Harawira says any flag would be better than the current one. 

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