October 10th is Fiji Day. A new Fijian flag was supposed to have been at the centre of independence day festivities at this year’s Fiji Week. But Fiji won rugby gold at the Olympics in August and that changed everything.
Not only Australia and New Zealand have ongoing flag debates because of the ties to the UK in their national flags. Australians have discussed the removal of the Union Jack from their flag for years, and in New Zealand a two-step referendum was held to replace the current NZ flag with a new one.
Parallel to events in New Zealand it was also announced by the Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, that he wanted Fiji to have a new national flag without the Union Jack in the upper hoist. The country needs a more indigenous and truly Fijian symbol to honour, now and in the future, it was argued.
The current Fijian flag is a light blue version of the British Blue Ensign with the coat of arms of Fiji in the fly. It was adopted as an update of earlier Fijian colonial flags in 1970 at the time of Fiji’s independence from the United Kingdom.
A flag design competition in 2015 resulted in 23 different designs for a new flag. However, the proces was met with staunch resistance from the opposition in Fiji’s parliament. A flag change is not what the country is asking for, rather the flag is highly revered and dear to the people of Fiji, opposition MPs protested in February 2016. Prime Minister Bainimarama refused to let a referendum decide the matter.
In March this year the New Zealand flag referendum was won by the current flag. Prime Minister John Key, who had led the campaign for a new NZ flag, accepted defeat. 2,000 km northeast of New Zealand, the Fijian flag issue was again delayed with no real news about a decision.
Then, on 11 August 2016, Fiji won the men’s rugby sevens competition at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The rugby-crazy island nation erupted with pride and happiness over the 43–7 win against Great Britain! The light blue Fijian flag with its Union Jack was waved vigorously by fans in the Brazilian stadium and for days afterwards in Fiji.
Six days after the Olympic victory for Fiji an announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office read: It has been deeply moving to witness the way Fijians have rallied around the national flag as our rugby sevens team brought home Olympic gold. And it continued: It has been apparent to the Government since February that the flag should not be changed for the foreseeable future.
Frank Bainimarama also said that the cost of a flag change would be better spent on the ongoing recovery of severe tropical cyclone Winston which hit Fiji on 20 February 2016 killing 44 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Response on social media indicates that this is a very popular decision and may indeed put off the flag debate in Fiji for a long time.