What’s in a flag?

A vexillological storm is brewing in the South Pacific. On 10th of October 2015, on the 45th anniversary of its independence, Fiji will hoist a new flag, a new visual identity of the nation on the world stage. Fiji is not alone of course in ‘the great flag debate of countries whose flags currently include the Union flag in the canton, or upper left quarter’ (my snappily titled moniker for the issue). This club of four includes Fiji, and its Oceanian neighbours Australia, New Zealand and Tuvalu. New Zealand is currently in the grip of flag debate with referenda planned during the next two years whilst the topic regularly comes up in Australia usually in connection with republicanism. Tuvalu changed its flag to a Union-less design in the mid-1990s only to revert back one year later to its Union incorporating design that remains its flag to this day. The last of the Oceania ‘Union Four’ to submerge itself in the flag debate is Fiji, and movement is well under way for the upcoming flag change.

The current flag of Fiji

The current flag of Fiji

Reasons given for the change include links to the colonial era and so-called stereotype symbols on the current flag. So what of the finalist flag designs? Well they can be seen every day across the country – on giant billboards, at the cinema, on mobile advertising screens in shopping malls, on adverts between television programmes, in newspapers and magazines… It is in fact a visual assault on the senses. The final 23 designs chosen by the Government appointed Flag Committee are strikingly similar, with the prominent Fiji Blue of the current flag still visible. There is also a plethora of indigenous Fijian symbolism on the various entries including the ‘davui’ shell, the ‘drua’ sailing canoe and traditional ‘tapa’ or ‘masi’ barkcloth design as seen on the beautiful Fiji Airways aircraft

Billboard in Ratu Sukuna Park, central Suva

Billboard in Ratu Sukuna Park, central Suva

A subtle reference to the classic British game show? OK, reading too much into it...

A subtle reference to the classic British game show? OK, reading too much into it…

Opponents of the change argue that it is difficult to create a national identity for a flag overnight, and that the current designs are fads that will soon fade to become outdated, and that for all the echoes of colonialism the current flag might have, it is well known across the world (thanks largely to rugby) and strikes a sentimental chord with Fiji Islanders of all races.

At first glance the proposed flag change in Fiji may seem a light issue, but it is embroiled in debates of democracy, regionalism, postcolonial identity and the appropriation of history. On the 10th of October we will find out how the people of Fiji voted. But in the meantime, which is your favourite?

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