The Flag, Patriotism And The RSA

  • Marie Hasler
Women's Affairs

RSA Executive Committee
Westbrook House
181 Willis Street
Good afternoon everyone.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

It is an occasion I have looked forward to for several reasons. However, as I have only a short time with you I really only want to concentrate on one issue.

That is, the role of the RSA in modern New Zealand society and in particular its relationship to the flag.

I want to say at the outset that I personally have never been a member of the armed services, nor have I served in any capacity in any theatre of war.

I have only two somewhat remote forms of contact with our forces. First, living for a year as an 'army brat' at Papakura military camp under the care of a relative who was a professional soldier. The second was regularly accompanying my father, a second-world war veteran, to innumerable ANZAC Day and RSA functions.

Of course, I still attend many RSA gatherings and I have kept enjoyable links with veterans in my electorate of Waitakere. I am also privileged to serve as deputy chair on the Foreign Affairs, Defence - Trade Select Committee. My views however, are strictly those of a civilian observer.

We know, historically, the RSA, and similar organisations preceding it have been a very prominent feature of New Zealand social life ever since the second Boer war. The RSA itself of course, wasn't formed until the first world war in 1916. It reached peak numbers with the advent of the second world war.

As we are all aware, the fortunes of the RSA since that time, have fluctuated greatly. It is thus perhaps strange, perhaps merely ironic, that today, a period in our history where there are fewer New Zealanders with direct experience of armed conflict, than at any other time, people young and old have taken a sudden and deep interest in all aspects of our military history.

I would go further. It is my considered opinion, based on close observation, that, not only is the RSA a unique cultural institution, but it has come to be the embodiment of a New Zealand identity in a way that no other social establishment can hope to attain. The increasing significance ascribed to ANZAC Day, noticeably by the young, seems to me to mean that it is now virtually New Zealand's National Day.

In this era of globalisation it is very important to recognise this fact. It is a supreme contradiction that easily the most powerful force in the current world is nationalism. Clearly some nations have carried nationalism to excess. I don't need to itemise them but really there are dozens of them and they appear to be unending. Events in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda and Serbia are vivid enough testimony.

This nationalistic force is not without impact on almost every other country around the globe, but fortunately war is waged by the means of sport and other sublimated forms of conflict. In a more civil context, it takes the form of patriotism.

The reasons why the RSA has the significance it does, are important.

The RSA is non-political. It is non-ideological. And it transcends any notions of social class or religion.

More profoundly it represents years of accumulated memory and experience of armed conflict.

There is no other body of greater experience and thoughtfulness, no body of people who have reflected more on the costs of war, on the damage to the human body, on the often profound harm to the human psyche, and the irreparable injuries to the minds of many of our servicemen and women.

It has been many years since New Zealand has engaged itself in a war on the scale experienced in the earlier parts of this century. I think it fair to say, due in great part to the sacrifices made by earlier generations, that New Zealanders today are better educated, more informed, more aware of the causes and effects of those earlier wars than the people who actually fought in them.

Naturally they have never experienced the horror and the intensity of those who were personally engaged; and this is a scarring emotional experience fortunately denied to them. Contemporaries also have far greater opportunities to avoid strife on this scale, and are largely free of the false notions that drove thousands of innocent but noble sentiments about war.

Yet patriotism means love of country. It implies a readiness to make sacrifices for it. Perhaps even to give one's life. Indeed, the RSA is the repository of that noble heritage. It is the symbol of the hundreds of thousands of people who have given their lives for love of country. People who have made sacrifices far beyond their own individual desires.

Yet, no one is born loving their country. What identifies that country? What sets it apart from any other land? How do we recognise it if at any given moment we are not on its soil?

We use that country's symbol. That symbol from time immemorial has been the flag. It has always fluttered high so that it can be seen from any point by all its followers.

The problem of patriotism is as old as politics. We in New Zealand are not exempt from having to deal with it. How do you persuade the young that it is not only natural that they love their country, but it is their duty? How do you do this? Unless a country has a specific programme it won't necessarily happen.

Ultimately, patriotism is the most fundamental of all political problems.

New Zealand is not a racial country; we are not of one race nor are we of one colour. We are not a sectarian country because we are not of one religion. Nor are we of just one ideology.

So what distinguishes us? How do we define ourselves in a way that we all recognise?

You will all be aware that I believe our most constant and enduring symbol is the Silver Fern. It is the most commonly used and instantly recognisable New Zealand image.

Virtually every sport has it as their emblem and it is extensively used in trade and business. I have been told that New Zealand soldiers in the first world war were actually referred to as the Ferns. And the stone statue honouring the unknown soldier in my local Waikumete cemetery is inscribed with two large crossed ferns.

I respect and honour our present flag; it is inscribed on my electorate office, and on my car. However, it is important to remind ourselves that the current flag was imposed upon us. By An Act of Parliament in 1902 a naval flag, the current ensign, was designated "the flag of the colony". It has never been changed. For the purposes of the flag, we are still a colony.

When we pledge loyalty to the flag, we pledge loyalty to the country to which it stands.

However, flags never die. The deeds of no regiment should ever be abandoned. The memories and achievement of no division should ever be forgotten. There is no need to discard the symbols of any particular era. But I do suggest they are anchored in history.

As I have already stated, the RSA has come to occupy today, perhaps by accident rather than design, a central position in our living culture. However, I fervently believe that your duty is not just to the past but to the future. These are the inseparable twin pillars of patriotism and it is in this spirit that I ask you to consider the possibilities of change.