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The changing of the flags

The flag of Fiji, including the Union Flag and the ‘Fiji blue’ background (1970–present) The flag of Fiji, including the Union Flag and the ‘Fiji blue’ background (1970–present) Steve Allen
04 Feb
Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, wants a new national flag – one without the Union Flag included. What is the future of Britain’s symbolic canton?

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Prime Minister Bainimarama announced: ‘We need to replace the symbols on our existing flag that are out of date and no longer relevant, including some anchored to our colonial past.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.’

BainimaramaPrime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama. Image: FijiONE

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.’

Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University of London, and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction, tells Geographical how the symbolism surrounding the news out of Fiji tells us a lot about the debate about Fijian identity:

The flag as a visual and material object is central to modern nationalisms. Visually, the flag is flown in public places and often associated with formal ceremonies of state such as Remembrance Sunday. But the flag is also material – it can be held solemnly, it can be folded up, it can be drawn on, it can be tied to other objects, it can be torn up and it can be burnt by those who associate the flag with an enemy state. Think of how often the US flag is burnt for example by angry crowds in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The iconography of the flag matters. While Fiji might be embarking on a quest for a new flag design, other territories such as the Falkland Islands would never relinquish the presence of the Union Flag on their distinct flag design. For Falkland Islanders, the presence of the Union Flag is a source of reassurance, a sign of a connection that the 2013 referendum was eager to embrace again. For other former colonies, such as Fiji – and possibly in the future New Zealand – the flag becomes a site of popular geopolitics, a place where identity, place and the relationship with the UK are openly negotiated.

We can see this as another moment alongside others such as referendums over the Queen as Head of State as a continued negotiation and, indeed, conversation between the UK and its former colonies – and in the case of Fiji it is all the more interesting given the tensions between Indian and Fijian communities with their different histories and geographies of association with a former imperial power.

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.

NZ-FlagsExisting popular flags used within New Zealand (L to R): The current New Zealand flag; the Tino Rangatiratanga flag (also known as the Maori flag); the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand; the silver fern

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.

canadaCanadian Red Ensign, former Canadian national flag (version used from 1957–1965)

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.

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