Time to rethink our national symbols?

The Queen will come amongst us on Friday. This is a signal event.

OK, she’s not making a special visit to cheer up her loyal subjects. She’s en route to Australia to preside at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

But she is our head of state and commands all due respect. It’s not often she trips out this far from her British fastness.

In-between-times we have a home-grown stand-in Governor-General. She does the job with distinction but we have deemed ourselves not grown-up enough to cut the colonial umbilical.

So next Monday there will be a truly bizarre event. Our republican Prime Minister will pay respects to a Queen — her Queen. The social democrat, fresh from hob-nobbing with world luminaries of the soft left in Stockholm, will honour an aristocratic anachronism.

It’s all in service of the state. A couple of weeks back our feminist Prime Minister mutely and meekly conformed with sexist marae protocol.

But ponder the symbolism of the royal event.

We have long brooked no aristocracy, no established church, no privilege bar money. We have long been, as learned commentators have for decades observed, republican in everyday attitudes and the way we conduct our public affairs — in all but our head of state.

One ingenious option, first proposed more than a century ago by Sir George Grey, would be to have held a plebiscite to choose our present Governor-General, with the winner presented to the Queen for confirmation. That would not have disturbed the constitution greatly but would have made a half-point about our standing as a nation.

Many argue in the Queen’s favour that the system isn’t broken and so should not be fixed. They usually also say the Queen is cheap.

They seldom add that during her reign the royal family has become tacky Women’s Weekly entertainment, on a par with starlets’ breathless exploits.

And they are wrong. The New Zealand monarchy — for she is Queen of New Zealand in her role as our head of state — is broken. It is broken in this important sense: that it is one of a raft of wrong symbols.

Not only do we have a British resident as our head of state but we have an essentially British flag, the Union Jack prominent. It shares that with Australia’s but at least in that country majorities tell pollsters they want a new flag and there is a movement dedicated to getting one.

We also have someone else’s name. Zeeland is a stretch of coast in Holland. “Australia” is a thoroughly southern-hemisphere name.

Moreover, our final court of appeal is someone else’s, the Queen’s Privy Council in London.

Why should foreigners take us seriously when we don’t have our own name, head of state, flag and final court? How can we take ourselves seriously?

The national anthem is home grown, to be sure. But it is best sung in Maori — not because Maori is a more beautiful sung language but because few understand enough Maori to get the meaning. That is just as well because the the first verse enjoins us to leave everything up to God.

Where is the rugged self-reliance of our faded colonial myths, the get-up-and-go we are told we need for economic salvation?

And what is a foreigner to make of our national icon? What sort of bird doesn’t fly and comes out only at night?

Our national symbols are all wrong.

So what? Symbols are just frippery, aren’t they, like lace on a cuff? Actually, they project ourselves to others and to ourselves. And the symbols we have project a displaced, unconfident people.

This is a second-term challenge for Helen Clark. She has made nation-building a defining theme of her prime ministership, which is partly why she champions the arts, sporting achievement and innovation. Her foreign and defence policies emphasise national uniqueness in a multilateral world and downplay alliances.

But so far Clark has left all the symbols in place.

A door is opening. A bill to abolish legal appeals to the Privy Council is likely to reach Parliament this year, though it may not then pass for a year or two.

That doesn’t automatically imply any other moves and Clark is very wary of stirring the republican pot by touching other symbols. But if abolishing the Privy Council is her endpoint, her claim to be a nation-building Prime Minister will be unconvincing.