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Changing Flags, Shifting Identities

Thursday, 2 April 2015  | Bruce Wearne

The New Zealand government has recently "flagged" a referendum to determine whether this former British colony will adopt a new flag, just as Canada did fifty years ago. The intention is that the national flag will no longer carry the Union Jack, but rather reflect New Zealand's current place as an independent nation. The Prime Minister has even "flagged" his preference: the national flag would feature the silver fern, the emblem known around the rugby world from the jersey of New Zealand's all-conquering international team, the All Blacks.

Following suit, the recently elected Fijian Prime Minister has announced that Fiji will have a new flag by October when his country will celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of independence. The time has come, he says, to show that Fiji is independent of former colonial ties. This announcement indicates his government's desire to replace its national flag with one that no longer incorporates the Union Jack.

These recent announcements about changes to national flags point ahead to vital political tasks. The task of choosing a (new) flag requires citizens to deepen their understanding of their system of governance and of the characteristics of their political communities. Such deepened understanding must eventually extend beyond the boundaries of separate polities within the region, and contribute to the region's political life. In the South West Pacific (SWP), these political discussions have taken on varying forms; some polities are grappling with these vital questions of governance and political community bound up in changing their flags, and others are choosing to bypass this important discussion.

The New Zealand PM wants any flag change to be endorsed by a referendum, but in Fiji, the government's decision was simply announced. The New Zealand announcement raised the prospect of extending the symbolism of the All Blacks. The Fiji announcement comes after military rule has redesigned Fiji's system of government, and the government presumes that electoral victory last September is all the endorsement it needs to make the change. It seems that the aspiration to hoist a new flag symbolizes Fiji's newly gained maturity and the completion of the revolution that the PM wants Fijians, the region, and the world to believe he has long been advocating. Fijians are expected to salute when the new flag runs up the flagpole.

Readers may wonder here what relevance these political changes in the SWP have for Christian citizens seeking to promote justice and greater political engagement in North America and Europe. I assume many know something of our SWP region, but I suspect it is mass media rather than specific Christian Democratic connections that have, by and large, shaped readers’ perspective of the SWP.

What is actually going on around the region? How does the political life within neighboring polities have an impact upon the region as a whole and on the global stage? How will a complex international political identity for the SWP region be formed in the coming years? In responding to these questions, I write this with the hope of providing Christians in “the North” with some fine-grained analysis of political life in this antipodean SWP sector of "the South".

History and Geography in the South West Pacific

Colonised by European powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the SWP, like the rest of the globe, has experienced the massive twentieth century shifts following one after the other. The area is about 1/7th of the world's surface, and yet it carries only half of 1 percent of the world's population (38 million). This enormous area includes Polynesia, Melanesia, and Australasia, and it reaches from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the east to Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean in the west. The region's peoples are separated by oceans and are custodians of many diverse languages that have characterised the lives of their ancestors as distinct peoples for thousands of years.

The SWP is widely dispersed and politically intricate, with Australia by far the largest and most influential of SWP polities. The governments of Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand are, by international law, responsible for parts of Melanesia and Polynesia. Since the 1960s, Indonesia has ruled the former Dutch provinces of west New Guinea (Papua and West Papua). Some of the Melanesian islands of the Torres Strait are part of the Australian polity. In New Zealand's case, the Polynesian Cook Islands and Niue are self-governing in free association with New Zealand, while Tokelau is classified as a dependant New Zealand territory. Over 20 percent of New Zealand's population is either Maori or Pacific Islander, and 37 percent of Fijians are of Indian descent, a legacy of indentured labor schemes under the British from 1879 until 1916.

In historical and geographical terms, the region is diverse and its peoples, many of whom have very ancient lineages, are conscious of their own historical development and political identity of more recent times. The island polities contribute to international affairs via the Pacific Islands Forum and through the United Nations.

Flags and Political Identity

All of the states in this region have their own national flags, many of which bear testimony to previous British colonial rule by including the Union Jack. The proposals for new flags in the SWP symbolize a twenty-first century sense of post-colonial national independence. Australia's flag retains the Union Jack, which for many, is an unnecessary symbol of Australia's attachment to its British past. Shouldn't it get in line with this regional trend and take its place among progressive amd modern post-colonial democracies?

The logic sounds cogent enough. But cogent rhetoric is not always in tune with current realities. The year 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli in World War I. There, as ANZAC troops, they fought under their own national flags, flags which incorporated a Union Jack. In both New Zealand and Australia, it will not be easy to discuss the desirability of a new flag that no longer incorporates the British flag. Much nationalist sentiment is poured into commemorations of that tragic military disaster one hundred years ago. Gallipoli has long been taken to represent the moment when both former British colonies "came of age" and demonstrated their independence. New generations from both countries make pilgrimage to Gallipoli every April 25th on ANZAC day - the day of the initial bloody landing in 1915.

Other vital regional flag issues have enormous bearing on our discussion. There is the ongoing confrontation between the military of Indonesia and the supporters of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, the Free Papua Movement. The raising of the Morning Star Flag in the colonised west New Guinea provinces of Indonesia is simply too much for the régime in Jakarta, and flag raisers are imprisoned for treason.

At the other end of the Melanesian crescent in Suva, Fiji, the newly installed Prime Minister continues to develop his government's view of recent history, implying that his ongoing involvement in coups has finally brought an end to Fiji's "coup culture." Fiji’s new flag will symbolize its new era of post-colonial maturity and independence. "Coup culture" may be buried under the weight of the newly elected parliament's deliberations for now, but the institutions of civil society in the Republic of Fiji Islands are being managed by former military personnel. The democratically elected government certainly seems to be functioning like other militarised democracies around the world as if Fiji is its own colony.

Flags and the Political Community

To change a nation's flag requires an open political discussion. In Australia, for example, this discussion should take place on the basis of a better understanding of how Australia, as the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful player in the SWP, is part of its immediate region. Its political life is already symbolized by a variety of national flags alongside the Australian National Flag. Among its collection of national flags are three significant "ethnic" flags pertaining to the indigenous peoples of its polity, five state flags (all with Union Jacks) and the two other flags of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. 

The flag of the Torres Strait Islands often flies in public places next to the Australian National Flag and the Australian Aboriginal Flag. There is also the flag that identifies the Australian South Sea Islanders whose ancestors were transported to Australia in the nineteenth century as indentured laborers. Recognised by Canberra since 1994, this flag gives formal recognition to these SWP people as a legitimate part of the nation's life. These developments in the nation's symbolism, represented by flags, gained momentum from the 1992 Mabo judgement when land rights were granted to the residents of the Murray group of islands in the Torres Strait. In making this determination, the court inserted a provision of native title into Australian law with significance for Australia's ongoing sense of nationhood, the full political consequences of which are still to be developed. The question of native title is not merely a question for Australian law - it is a vitally important question for Pacific Islands states as well, particularly for Fiji and New Zealand.

With the Mabo decision ascribing land rights to Torres Strait Islanders, Australia is defined not merely as a large island near to, or next to, Melanesia. The Torres Strait Islander Flag, as an Australian national (small "n") flag, signifies an Australia within Melanesia. The significance of this waits elaboration by ongoing political activity and statecrafting across the region.

Open and robust political discussion here holds out the possibility that those living in the region may begin to think of themselves as citizens in a regional sense, which might even anticipate a future federal union. (There are historical precedents for this - one only has to think of the process of forming an Australian federation, or the bringing together of the initial States of the Union, and of the European Community). It will not only require a less provincial attitude by Australian politicians, but a well-formed recognition around the SWP of how national statecrafting must coincide with regional and international governance. This will also need the development of an inter-dependent understanding of international relations between neighboring states.

It is conceivable that such regional flag changing will provoke further "republican" calls within Australia. The need for a new national flag may be added to calls to elect a president to replace the Queen's representative, the Governor-General, as the head of state. But the more important change is not how a head of state is appointed, or the wording of the constitution, or what symbolism is contained in the flag. All the states of the SWP, large and small, with all their citizens, are all involved in the task of forming public governance for themselves and for their regional neighbours. The region's big need is for its people to deepen their political understanding of the region in which their citizenship is located, of the region that presupposes their joint global contribution. Here, a Christian Democratic perspective should be urgently developed to assist citizens in the God-given task of promoting public justice for all.


Used by permission of the author. Posted online 25 March 2015 at Capital Commentary for the Center for Public Justice.

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