Flying the flag for New Zealand

Chris Pritchard

Arena Economics

Christchurch is still recovering from its 2011 earthquake, with town planners now saying that reconstruction is a 50- to 100-year project. But that hasn’t stopped the country’s economy forging ahead, thanks to its ‘can do’ attitude

New Zealand Flag

© Michael Button Creative Commons by 2.0

An unfamiliar flag may soon flutter outside international gatherings. New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key wants to hold two referenda – the first to choose from competing designs and the second to decide between the country’s current flag and the most popular new design. They’ll be held in November this year and April next year.

Critics condemn these votes as a waste of money, sparking a pithy reaction from Key: “What price do you put on democracy?” As he sees it: “We’ve had this debate… for the better part of the past 25 years and we need to put it to bed one way or the other.”

Nevertheless, discussion about the flag is commonly described as a welcome diversion from a more sombre topic: rebuilding after one of the country’s worst natural disasters.

Key, 53, heads a centre-right National Party government with 60 seats in Wellington’s 121-member unicameral parliament, where seven parties are represented. The Nationals, by far the most popular party, gained only 47 per cent of last year’s vote. Opinion polls say nearly 70 per cent of New Zealanders think Key is his country’s best option for Prime Minister. Analysts maintain he is helped by a poor-boy-made-good image and the fact that, after becoming Prime Minister in 2008, he didn’t slash welfare. Mind you, he didn’t cut taxes either, hiking goods-and-services taxes from 12.5 to 15 per cent in a first term that began in 2008. His oft-cited definition of any government’s most important role: balancing a country’s books. He sums up his personal philosophy as: “You get out of life what you put in.”

A self-made man, he’s regarded as exceptionally personable. The son of an alcoholic father and encouraging mother, he grew up in semi-poverty on a housing estate and later immersed himself in the financial sector to become one of the South Pacific nation’s 200 richest citizens – owning a beach house in Hawaii and a ski lodge in Aspen.

New Zealand’s governments serve three-year terms, so Key doesn’t face re-election until 2017. He recently latched onto the divisive flag issue, animated discussion of which is commonly heard in the country’s coffee shops and pubs. It’s sometimes argued that this debate deliberately diverts attention from Christchurch’s reconstruction, a more costly exercise than initially estimated.

An earthquake on 22 February 2011 killed 185 people and devastated much of the South Island’s largest city. It was New Zealand’s second biggest natural disaster, dwarfed only by a 1931 quake in and around the North Island’s Napier.

Insurers estimated it would cost NZ$15 billion (NZ$1 = almost 80 US cents) to put Christchurch back together again. But this assessment quickly ballooned to NZ$40 billion – and is still growing. What’s more, immediately after the disaster officials surmised it would take three to five years to restore normality to a pretty university town through which the Avon River winds and which officials often call the world’s most English city outside England. Economists now insist the repairing of Christchurch will be a 50 to 100-year project. No-one really knows. It is, however, a big drain on the public purse.

Fortunately, the economy is healthy. Unemployment is at a relatively modest 6.28 per cent – hardly a worry when compared to much of the developed world. The NZ$ is expected to continue strengthening. GDP grew 2.4 per cent per capita in the year to 30 June 2014, according to Statistics New Zealand.

Major trading partners are Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union. New Zealand’s lack of mineral riches has proved a blessing, cushioning the country against fallen commodity prices. Instead, major exports include wool, lamb (New Zealand has 60 million sheep) and dairy products – with dairy the only foreign currency earner outstripping an important tourism sector. The latter employs 5.7 per cent of the workforce directly and another 3.1 per cent indirectly. Main imports are machinery, vehicles, electronics and textiles.

Auckland, New Zealand’s commercial hub, is the world’s biggest Polynesian city. Many indigenous Maori (Polynesians, comprising 15.4 per cent of the country’s 4.5 million population, including immigrants from every continent) live there, as do most Samoan immigrants and arrivals from elsewhere in New Zealand’s Polynesian backyard.

Though often perceived as small (which it certainly appears to be alongside much larger Australia), it’s actually quite big. Its gentle curve stretches 1,600 km from the top of the North Island, through the South Island, to the far-southern tip of Stewart Island and takes in small coastal islands. Then there’s the Chatham Islands, a fishing community a 90 minutes eastbound flight from Christchurch.

These earthquake-prone ‘shaky isles’ – with an internationally lauded education system – are routinely praised for punching above their weight. Evidence includes strings of successes in arts and sciences, business and sport. Indeed, Robert Muldoon, a former Prime Minister, famously quipped that outflows of New Zealanders to neighbouring Australia – spurred by higher pay scales – improved the IQs of both nations.

New Zealanders – who call themselves Kiwis after their flightless national bird – are esteemed for a ‘can do’ attitude much evident in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake. Bus companies scrambled to market tours of quake-hit neighbourhoods after identifying demand from intrepid visitors. Businesses quickly relocated to hip new zones, the quirkiest being a collection of gaudily-painted shipping containers housing restaurants, bars and commercial spaces.

In one of these, a local resident explains to tourists the gist of the flag debate: desire for a design instantly denoting New Zealand. The current flag incorporates Britain’s Union Flag.

Indeed, Key points to another Commonwealth nation, Canada, and argues the maple leaf is at first glance associated with Canada. He contends a silver fern on a black background would be immediately identified with New Zealand. It would be similar to the jerseys of the All Blacks, the national rugby union team, in a nation where the sport is a passion. But Key acknowledges the public may prefer keeping existing colours in a new flag highlighting the fern.

Whatever the design, a new flag seems set to fly.

About the author:

Journalist Chris Pritchard is based in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent visitor to New Zealand


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