Flag referendum: A win for democracy

by The Listener / 01 April, 2016
Support for a new flag hasn’t been snuffed out. Rather, its momentum has been temporarily slowed.
Dawn French.
Dawn French.


So. After two referendums and a national debate that was far more bruising and acrimonious than anyone expected, we remain where we started: with a national flag that many New Zealanders still have trouble distinguishing from Australia’s, and which identifies us as a quaint British outpost in the South Pacific. The people have spoken – and as former Labour Party leader Mike Moore was fond of saying, the people are always right, even when they are wrong.

What, if anything, has been achieved? Critics say it was a scandalous waste of $26 million. But put that figure in perspective: it equates to 0.03% of total Government spending in the past financial year. Put another way, the flag referendum process cost $6 for every New Zealander – far less than the price of a movie ticket.

Even weaker was the argument that the referendum process ran roughshod over democracy. The process was fair, thorough and transparent. It was agreed in advance by a ­parliamentary committee consisting of MPs from every party except New Zealand First, which declined to participate. Two referendums were conducted, public meetings were held up and down the country, more than 10,000 flag designs were submitted for consideration and an advertising campaign reached into virtually every home. In the end, more than two million people – 67% of those eligible – voted, and the Government undertook in advance to honour the result.

Not democratic? Really? If anything, New Zealand has enhanced its standing as one of the world’s most democratic states. No other country has chosen its flag by popular vote. If there was a failing, it was of democracy itself when the first ­referendum, due to the quirks of the preferential system, produced a “favourite” flag design that wasn’t the most popular No 1 choice. But no one ever said democracy was perfect.

Other stumbles along the way were caused by flaws of ­judgment rather than process. One valid criticism was that the shortlist of four designs (increased to five at the last minute to satisfy a noisy social media campaign for the red peak design, which voters resoundingly rejected) failed to represent the breadth and variety of the “long list” of 40. But claims that the shortlist represented the personal favourites of the Prime ­Minister – which in turn necessitated the belief that the 12 prominent New Zealanders on the Flag Consideration Panel were all under the mind control of John Key – belonged in the realms of fantasy, if not outright paranoia.

Another canard was that it was all Key’s idea anyway: a personal vanity project. This no doubt explained the Labour Party’s petulant stance, which itself raises the issue of how far we can trust a party that promoted a change of flag in its 2014 election policy and was fully represented on the cross-party committee that gave its blessing to the referendum process, but changed its mind. Changing the flag wasn’t Key’s idea; it has a history that dates back to the 1960s. Support for change has surfaced repeatedly since, including from such beloved leaders as Norman Kirk and David Lange.

Yet another argument ran that rather than dither over the flag, New Zealand should go all the way and become a republic. That way,  a new flag would follow automatically. But republicanism remains a fringe movement, and most New Zealanders have no difficulty treating the flag as a distinct issue. Even visiting celebrities such as Dawn French understand that changing the flag is a separate matter. French told Fairfax Media she preferred the fern flag, saying, “Of course I love the Union Jack, it’s my flag … but you guys are New Zealand.”

In the end, the margin was closer than anyone predicted: 56.6% of voters favoured the status quo and 43.2% backed the Kyle Lockwood-designed alternative.

The referendum may have resulted in no change, but for reasons so complex, confused and contradictory that it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions about why people voted the way they did. There were many ironies, including anti-TPPA protesters voting for the ultimate symbol of corporate greed ­sanctioned by the Empire.

Support for a new flag hasn’t been snuffed out. Rather, its momentum has been temporarily slowed. As we go on with the task of explaining to the rest of the world the difference between our flag and that of Australia – the Aussie flag depicts the Southern Cross more accurately – New Zealanders have at least engaged in a passionate, if frustratingly inconclusive, debate about what our flag should say about us. In the process, we may have learnt something about ourselves. That should leave us better prepared when the issue comes up again – as it will.

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