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New Zealand No Longer Tries to Be 'More English Than England'

Many whites seek to break ties with their cultural legacy while many Maoris like the English connection.

Peter Foley is a newly elected municipal official, but his happiness with success at the polls is mixed with a little sadness: When he starts his government job, he'll be working under what he calls a "foreign symbol" - New Zealand's national flag, which contains Britain's Union Jack on a blue field with the constellation of the Southern Cross.

Such a view is all the more surprising for where and whom it comes from. Far from fitting any known radical profile, Mr. Foley was elected in rural Waimate, a notably conservative region. It was near Waimate that many of the first British migrants began arriving early last century, determined to build a new nation "more English than England," as a popular line has it.

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The legacy of the early settlers may have been waning now for decades in New Zealand, which recently celebrated its 50th year of full independent status. But for some the pace of change clearly isn't brisk enough.

Some of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for change have emerged from within the ruling conservative National Party, once a patriotic byword for queen and country. Their passion appears to be running high at a time when parliamentarians in general are struggling to cope with an Asian economic crisis that has helped the nation's dollar currency lose up to 30 percent of its value.

But for the moment it is the cultural currency that apparently counts for the most. Republican-minded officials are making much of their abhorrence of the colonial-era flag that has fluttered above New Zealand's Parliament buildings for the past 96 years.

The debate is similar to Australia's, which is currently in the final, drawn-out stages of deciding whether it's time for a split with Mother England. Unlike Australia, though, the movement here is an ad hoc affair. There are no leaders, no exact game plan on how a constitutional split might be negotiated.

WHILE British TV programs and music dominate the airwaves, the country's Cultural Affairs Minister, Marie Hasler, recently provoked a national discussion with her claim that the Union Jack long ago became a "meaningless" national symbol. She advocates replacing it with a native fern leaf. A phone-in poll conducted by a current affairs TV program found that, among more than 14,000 respondents, nearly 40 percent support her proposal.

Radio stations have begun casting about for replacements for the two national anthems, "God Defend New Zealand" and "God Save the Queen." An early front-runner is alternative musician Chris Knox's tongue-in-cheek "New Zealand Is a Very, Very, Very, Very, Very Good Place."

Others among Ms. Hasler's parliamentary colleagues are jumping on the bandwagon by suggesting name changes for cities like Palmerston North honoring long-gone English heroes, some of whom never set foot in New Zealand.

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They would like to see these population centers renamed in Maori, the language of the Polynesian inhabitants who first came here from Hawaii 800 years ago. Their status has become a hot-button political issue as their numbers have swelled to account for more than 12 percent of the overall population.

The voice of local Maoris has been markedly absent in the clamor, however, even when the suggestion was recently made to do away with the austerely functional names of North Island and South Island. The names are flat-out boring "for a land that has so much to offer," says Environment Minister Nick Smith. He proposes that South Island revert to the original Maori Te Wai Pounamu, taken to mean "the waters of the greenstone."

Even James Cook, one of the first Europeans to navigate the Pacific, is facing pressure: Under the terms of a land settlement reached this month between the Crown and members of a South Island Maori tribe, the mountain named after him will also be known as Aoraki.

For New Zealand Maoris, the name changes have generally been more welcome than the republicanism that is firing the issue. Opinion polls show their numbers solidly behind retaining links with Britain - if only because the terms under which modern New Zealand was established in 1840 were negotiated between their tribal ancestors and the British monarch in a legal treaty.

"We believe our interests are best served in remaining with the Crown," says Wayne Taitoko, a member of a northern tribe known as the Tainui.

The issue may eventually recede, as it has at various times over the past two decades. Such a fading away should come as a relief at least to some in the small expatriate American community that, while remaining neutral on the issue of the flag, might presumably have a good-humored attachment to the colonial place-names of the country's southern hamlets of Clinton and Gore.

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