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New Zealanders Search For Symbol Of Identity, Independence


In New Zealand, the country's most important cut of cloth is at the center of a nationwide debate. New Zealand's flag has long been criticized by some as a symbol of British Colonialism. The U.K.'s Union Jack remains in the flag's upper left-hand corner. But it was only this year that Prime Minister John Key proposed a referendum to change it. Tim Watkin, journalist and founder of the politics and culture blog Pundit, is on the line with us now from Auckland, New Zealand to tell us more. Hello there, Tim.

TIM WATKIN: Hi. How are you?

LYDEN: I'm just fine, thank you. Now, tell us what the objections might be to having the Union Jack. After all, it's been there a long time. What's wrong with having it (unintelligible) on the flag?

WATKIN: It is. It's been there over 100 years. But it was appropriate to a time and place. Back in the 1800s, it gave us identity and a sense of loyalty that applied to a young colonial country that had a small population at the bottom of the world and was very much a colony of Britain. Very different country today. We are part of the Asia Pacific region now. We trade mostly with China, Australia and the U.S. We simply don't have those ties to the old country as we used to, and it's always felt inevitable that at some point we take that symbol away and say, hey, we're independent. We're new. We're fresh. We're a different country now.

LYDEN: But there must be, Tim, after all this time, older people who would like to keep the flag.

WATKIN: It is largely an age distinction. There are younger people who think that our geography has now trumped our history. We are in the world where it's more relevant than the ties we used to have. But for an older generation, those ties are really important, especially when it comes to war, and World War I and World War II, and New Zealand lost more soldiers per the population than most countries in the world. And they died and served under that flag.

LYDEN: Well, what are some of the alternatives that have been proposed?

WATKIN: The prime minister, John Key, here is a big fan of the silver fern. We have a symbol that we use on our sporting outfits. And one of our major teams, which is literally of a plant, a wee fern plant on a black background. For others, though, that's a bit too much like a brand or a logo than really a sovereign flag. There are artists who have come up with sort of designs of white skies and - 'cause, you know, it's also known as (Foreign language spoken) in Maori, the land of the long white cloud. There are Maori, the native people here, have independence flag that are talked about. So, quite a lot of options on the table to be debated.

LYDEN: Who gets to choose?

WATKIN: The first step now, the way it's being proposed, is that a working party of politicians wait until some of them will wait till the anniversaries around World War I are out of the way in the next year or two, and then they come up with a referendum process, which is probably two steps. First, we decide whether we want a change or not, and then if we do want a change what we would change it to. So, we're, there will be a lot of debate in the next couple of years, you can be sure.

LYDEN: Speaking with us from Auckland is journalist Tim Watkin. Tim, thank you so very much.

WATKIN: Hey, you're welcome. Great to talk to you.

LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.