Symbol solution

by The Listener / 19 March, 2015
We have a fair, transparent and thorough process for deciding what our flag should be. Let’s get on with it.
Plenty of stimulating designs. From top: Kyle Lockwood, Otis Frizzell, Bret De Thier, Ro Smith, Robyn la Roche, Richard Kingsford, James Bowman.

Nothing divides a nation more than arguments over the symbol of the country’s unity. So it was something of a surprise last year when the Prime Minister – the ultimate pragmatist, always prepared to sway onto the right side of public opinion – chose the flag as the issue on which to put a stake in the ground. In his recent Waitangi Day speech, John Key declared that the present flag, dating from 1902, captured a colonial and post-colonial era whose time had passed: “I believe,” he said, “the time is right for us to create a flag which is distinctly New Zealand’s.”

We agree. In fact, the nation as a whole appears increasingly convinced. According to Research New Zealand, only 43% of the people questioned on the issue late last year were against change – a substantial shift since 2011, when 54% were opposed. The proportion of respondents in favour of a new flag remained relatively constant at 19%, a minority that includes a high number of opinion shapers across politics, business, sport and the arts. Perhaps the most significant change was in the percentage of respondents taking a neutral position: 37% compared with 30% in 2011.

That suggests New Zealanders are open to persuasion, and more may come around as we become conditioned to the idea of change. Key, the former high-stakes currency trader, may be gambling that the ground will shift further as public debate gathers momentum – as it surely will, if Canada’s tumultuous experience in the 1960s is any guide. Few issues excite greater emotion than a proposal to change the flag, which goes to the heart of national identity; yet who now questions Canada’s decision to adopt the instantly recognisable maple leaf? On its 50th anniversary last month, the Queen herself referred to it as a “unique and cherished symbol”.

Given the potential for acrimony, the formal process of deciding the issue in New Zealand has begun with little fuss. Parliament passed legislation this month providing for two postal referendums. In the first, later this year, voters will be asked to rank four designs selected from those chosen by a panel of prominent New Zealanders. In the second, voters will next year choose between the existing flag and the most popular of the alternatives. If they opt for the status quo, that’s it: the referendum is binding.

No one could dispute that this process is fair, transparent and thorough. It was agreed on by a cross-party group of MPs and avoids any presumption in favour of change. The clumsily titled Flag Consideration Panel represents a variety of interests and will be expected to consult widely. Moreover, the use of a preferential voting system in the first referendum should ensure that the ultimate choice of alternative design has the broadest possible support. If one design emerges at the outset with majority support, it will automatically be chosen; otherwise, less favoured designs will be eliminated one by one in line with voters’ preferences. Yes, it’s complex and relatively expensive, but it delivers an impeccably democratic outcome.

Labour and New Zealand First voted against the legislation, arguing that the process is back-to-front – that voters should first be asked whether they want change. If the answer was no, the expense of a second referendum would thus be avoided. But the most effective way to test support for the current flag is to put it up against an alternative, because otherwise voting is in a vacuum. To put it another way, how can people cast an informed vote for or against change without knowing what they would be changing to?

Of course there will be ructions. No matter which design emerges from this year’s referendum, there will be the same deafening chorus of protest as in Canada. The RSA and New Zealand First will fight change all the way, because that’s what they do. People will complain that the process is unnecessary and costly, at an estimated $26 million, and that there are more important issues. Yet the fact that our flag is a cringing piece of colonial complaisance has been a cause of growing embarrassment for more than 40 years, and it will only get worse. Let’s sort this now.

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