National day — for a leading small advanced country

Thursday is Waitangi Day, national day, a day, John Key thinks, for a new flag. More to the point, it could mark our role as a leading advanced small country.

Set aside the aromatic irony in our most royalist Prime Minister since 1957 wanting the Queen’s home-country flag off our flag. Symbols reflect how we think about ourselves. And “ourselves” is all of us, so a new design would need to be the product of an exhaustive debate not an elite brainstorm and a quickie referendum.

The current flag does not depict how we think of ourselves. It tells the world we are tied to Britain and lumps us in with Australia (as, by the way, “Anzac” does, too.)

A fern, John Key’s choice, is not distinct either. Ferns are ubiquitous. Air New Zealand’s koru is distinctly indigenous and so is also potentially a symbol of our distinctive biculturalism. The current flag isn’t such a symbol. Nor, for that matter, is the Maori flag.

For decades the Treaty of Waitangi was a symbol of division and contention and Waitangi Day a time when that was given voice. Now for growing numbers the treaty and the day stand for a decades-long “truth and reconciliation” process.

That process came at the time a rising generation — which is now the retiring generation — turned the formal independence legislated in 1947 into genuine independence, an independent mentality.

That generation didn’t call Britain “Home” as its parents did. It restated our history and place in the world. Its prolific fiction, plays, film, art and music were unselfconsciously this nation’s. James Belich, Helen Clark, John Psathas, Jane Campion and next-generation youngsters Eleanor Catton and Ella Yelich-O’Connor are on a lengthening list of distinctly New Zealand international notables.

There is now also a confidence to do fine things distinctly well: a Te Whau 2012 syrah, a Felton Road Block 5, a Delish primal bite, an Over the Moon Galactic Gold or a Schoc chocolate.

Write your own list. It will not likely be short. That is the mark of a leading small advanced nation, the nation we now are on our national day.

Small advanced nation: what’s that and, in any case, so what?

It comes from an initiative by Sir Peter Gluckman, Key’s chief science adviser. He got together his counterparts in five other small (under-10 million population) advanced countries, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel and Singapore (Switzerland may also be about to join) to see what they could learn from each other and especially what New Zealand could learn from the others, which mostly are better at innovation.

Ho hum, another international talkfest, all cocktails and business-class junkets? Actually, there is a joint work programme which covers a range of matters of common interest.

It includes: understanding the role of multinational corporations in small countries’ innovation ecosystems; identifying the defining characteristics of successful high-technology countries (the OECD and the European Union have got interested); analysing successful technology transfer from universities and research institutions (there are about 100 in the six countries, enough variance for a valid study but small enough to study quickly and effectively); working out how to prioritise public research investment with limited budgets; and working out how to assess the impact on public policy, health, the environment and economic growth.

This is not just scientists in a quiet space offstage. An economic dimension was added early on, inserting rigour.

David Skilling (Treasury, the New Zealand Institute and now heading his own business in small-advanced Singapore) has been getting some international traction with an argument that small advanced countries can respond more flexibly than big countries to changing global economics and so may have something to say to the slower-moving big guys. Vangelis Vitalis, our ambassador in Brussels, has developed a parallel theme for small countries’ positioning in big global politics.

Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary John Allen, now backed by senior ministers, including Key and Bill English, has made the Gluckman-Skilling enterprise a significant focus and his staff are now gradually integrating it into foreign policy. Other agencies’ chief executives are starting to take notice.

Jim McLay, in his bid for a UN Security Council seat, has added the advanced small countries dimension to our 70 years positioning as a good global citizen and honest broker and to his initiative of a group which helps small countries’ UN embassies’ tiny staffs navigate the UN’s bewildering, arcane agenda and protocols.

A big opportunity to inject the small advanced country perspective into global debate and governance will come in New Zealand’s involvement in Australia’s hosting of the G20 in November.

It is also an opportunity to refashion New Zealand in foreign eyes as a leading small advanced country meriting respect — a nation of standing, worthy of its own proper, indigenous flag.