Braving the flag

by Bill Ralston / 07 March, 2016
An edge of hysteria is creeping into most debates in New Zealand these days – and it’s not pretty.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Stand by your letter box – sometime in the next few days your ballot papers will arrive in part two of the great flag referendum of 2016. Never before has the nation been so gripped by a political debate … No! Wait! Come back! Keep reading, please?

Yes, I know, it can be a really boring issue. Sigh. It is hard to get passionate about changing a piece of coloured cloth for another piece of coloured cloth. I have a hard enough time trying to pick what colour T-shirt to wear of a morning let alone decide whether we should go for the new flag design or old one.

I eventually decided we did need the new one. It has a silver fern and the Southern Cross; what’s more brand New Zealand than that? Besides, why have we got the ensign of another nation, the United Kingdom, on our flag? I could have sworn it unceremoniously dumped us in the 1970s to run off with that tarty European Economic Community.

That move cost us dearly. Then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon borrowed hugely to make up the loss of income from trade with the UK, poured heaps into some doomed “Think Big” projects that were eventually mothballed and left the incoming Labour Government to hold a fire sale of our assets so we didn’t end up bankrupt like Greece is today. Thanks, Britain, I really want your Union Jack on our flag to remind me of that divorce.

So when I was asked to do a commercial extolling the virtues of the new flag, I thought what a good idea. Dumb idea, Bill. The various folk in the video who voiced an opinion in favour of change, including me, were derided and condemned by a vocal bunch who favour keeping the old blue ensign. Apparently the vocal bunch are allowed a view, but according to them, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and the rest of the dreaded “celebrities” in the video aren’t allowed to express their opinion.

There is an edge of hysteria creeping into most debates in New Zealand these days, even a debate as boring as the one about the flag. I was in the supermarket recently when the wife of one of the country’s leading artists bellowed at me in outrage that I was supporting a “tea towel” for a flag and she had seen me in the commercial. I took safe refuge in the fruit and vegetable section.

Another reason there is some rising tension around the debate is that the part of the country who hate John Key, and are sick of losing successive general elections to him, see the flag change as a Key ­initiative and so want to defeat it. They seem to have forgotten that changing the flag was a Labour plank at the last election.

Actually, Labour seems to have forgotten that too. The first person to seriously advocate we change the flag several years ago was Wellington businessman Lloyd Morrison. Aware that he is probably damaging the flag-change cause, Key has done a turtle and pulled his head in, but it may be too late.

Key is right when he says this is the only chance we’ll have during our lifetime to change the flag. If an idea is dumped at a referendum, no other government is likely to try to ­resuscitate it. He mentioned that we would have to become a republic before the flag change is raised again. Let’s face it, the prospect of William and Kate and baby George is enough to keep Kiwis plugged into the monarchy for a couple more generations.

Anyway, when the voting papers come through the letter box, make sure you do vote. I don’t care whether you favour the existing flag or want a change, just vote.

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