First it was New Zealand. Now the government of Fiji have decided that this year – forty five years since declaring its independence – is the opportunity to celebrate the hoisting of a new national flag, one without the distinctive Union Flag canton.
Prime Minister Bainimarama announced: ‘We need to replace the symbols on our existing flag that are out of date and no longer relevant, including some anchored to our colonial past. The new flag should reflect Fiji’s position in the world today as a modern and truly independent nation state.’
Leader of a 2006 coup which overthrew the existing government and established him as Prime Minister in 2007, and subsequently re-elected in Fiji’s first democratic elections in eight years, Bainimarama was talking at the opening of the Legal Aid Commission’s Office in the Fijian town of Nasinu.
‘We honour our existing flag as an important link to our past and it will continue to have an important place during the transitional phase to our new national symbol,’ he continued. ‘But after 45 years, my fellow Fijians, it is time to dispense with the colonial symbols on our flag – the Union Flag of the United Kingdom and our colonial shield – and embrace a flag that is relevant to every Fijian today.’
The sentiment of Bainimarama’s speech emphasised the lack of importance of Britain – and British symbols – in modern Fiji.
He went on to say: ‘It is time for us all to embrace change. It is time to sever links that are no longer relevant. It is time to have a national symbol that reflects our present state as a nation that has indigenous and truly Fijian symbols of identity – that we can honour as a truly authentic expression of our nation now and into the future. And that fills us with even more pride. Promotes even more unity. Because it is relevant and meaningful to us all. The Union Flag belongs to the British, not to us. The shield on our flag has the British Lion and the Cross of St George – a British patron saint. What does this have to do with us? They are the symbols of the coloniser – Britain – a country with whom we are friends and will continue to be so. But they are not symbols that are relevant to any Fijian in the 21st century. And they should go. Honoured symbols of our past, but not of our future.’
The process of selecting the new flag design will be through a nationwide competition, commencing immediately, for two months. Bainimarama announced there will be a ‘National Panel of Citizens’, people selected by the government, who will choose a winning design from all those selected. But Bainimarama insisted that it will be an inclusive process, where everyone will have the opportunity to have their opinion considered. ‘Every Fijian will be given an opportunity to have a view on this issue and a vote on the final design via social media and text platforms,’ he declared. ‘We urge every Fijian to take part in this process, irrespective of age, gender or socioeconomic background.’
The plan is that come Fiji Day (10 October, Fiji’s independence day) the new flag will be ready for public display. Bainimarama states that his preferred choice is ‘to retain the existing “Fiji blue” background – but without the Union Flag and Shield’, but insists that it is up for the people to decide.
Bainimarama’s speech follows on from New Zealand’s recent decision to hold referendums on whether they should change their national flag, potentially also to one without the Union Flag. In a speech last year, Prime Minister John Key said, ‘The design of the New Zealand flag symbolises a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed. The flag remains dominated by the Union Jack in a way that we ourselves are no longer dominated by the United Kingdom.’
There will first be a referendum later this year, in which New Zealanders can choose their favourite alternative design, followed by another in 2016, where it will be decided whether to switch to the new design, or continue with the current flag.
While many Commonwealth and former British Empire countries and islands still retain the Union Flag canton – including Australia, Tuvalu, the Cayman Islands, Anguilla and Bermuda – there have been several others who have opted away from symbolically retaining their links to Britain on their flags. One of the most high profile, and the example referenced by many people in Australia and New Zealand who want their own Union Flags removed, is Canada, who adopted the famous ‘maple leaf’ design in 1965. Prior to that, Canada used the ‘Canadian Red Ensign’, which was used throughout the first half of the 20th century in one form or another.
Will the flags of Fiji and New Zealand – and potentially several others – soon be joining the Canadian Red Ensign as an historical relic of the old British Empire? The next few years appear to be very important in the symbolic relationship between Britain and many former colonies.