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National flags have long been deeply integrated into politics. They can be a powerful force for patriotism and nationalism, but also for electoral advantage. Therefore John Key’s decision to suddenly fly the flag on this issue is to be taken seriously. Most importantly, what sort of impact could this have in an election year?
Political calculations and distractions
There are plenty of commentators and partisan voices decrying Key’s flag-changing gambit as simply being a pragmatic political calculation. Many say that it’s simply an attempt to distract public debate away from some important issues such as the headway that Labour is making on inequality – especially with it’s ‘baby bonus’ announcement. In typically blunt language, No Right Turn blogger has expressed his cynicism: ‘its hard not to be cynical: in the past when people have raised issues of our constitution or fundamental human rights, Key has said "we must focus on the economy" (because he apparently can't walk and chew gum at the same time). Now with an election coming up and people needing to be distracted from growing problems of inequality, its suddenly time to have a big patriotic wankfest about the flag. Convenient’ – see: A referendum on the flag? See also Will Matthews’ Playing Politics.
The Herald’s Claire Trevett has also pointed out the political calculation involved: ‘As it is every election, it is a Survivor-like game of outlast, out-fundraise and, most critically, outflank. After two days of headline stories about Labour's baby policy, Key yesterday pulled out his old faithful friend, the New Zealand flag. He has now all but promised a referendum on changing the flag for the 2014 election. Ta-da - within an hour, the energies of politically enthusiastic people on all sides had forgotten all about babies and teachers and were instead going hell for leather about a piece of fabric on the end of a pole’ – see: After baby-kissing theatrics comes flag waving.
Others see the Key initiative as a way of out-positioning his opponents, in the same way that Key did with his education initiative last week. For example, blogger Will de Cleene says: ‘John Key has seized the flag debate from apolitical limbo and made a run once again into Labour's unguarded territory…. Key has stolen the march on Labour with one of Helen Clark's old electioneering prongs of National Identity. Just like last week's Super Teacher announcement, it's as if National has sifted through Labour's policy remits and nicked what they could live with. The Nats are pre-emptively neutralising all of Labour's potential in-roads’ – see: Black Flag, White Flag.
For a sophisticated and interesting discussion about the potential electoral calculations and ramifications of the flag change debate, see Tim Watkin’s excellent blogpost, The hasty NZ flag debate – is this the time and place? Watkin argues that the flag debate is a gift from Key to Winston Peters, as ‘there's nothing like a flag debate to motivate older voters’, which would benefit both New Zealand First and National if it produces a higher voter turnout at the election. Watkin says ‘More than anything else, it would be a significant boost for New Zealand First in its quest to reach the five percent threshold. Having already given Winston Peters the gift of relevance with his willingness to consider New Zealand First as a potential coalition partner, it's 'Happy new year Winston' all over again’.
What about Colin Craig’s Conservatives? Well, in the comments section of Watkin’s blogpost, Josie Pagani makes some good points, saying that although the issue won’t change how most people vote, ‘there is one crucial group of people who might: Conservatives (NZ First , Colin Craig)…. As passions rise conservative voters will agitate to stop a change vote. The focus of attention will be irresistible for small conservative parties. They don't have to win the issue, they just have to create enough attention in response to the flag issue to attract a small, vocal band of support. And from these strands, John Key hopes to create a conservative coalition partner. And if it doesn't work, no harm done’.
The flag changing process
What is the best way to decide upon changing a nation’s flag? On the issue of the process, Tim Watkin has plenty to say about this too. In his blogpost he is scathing about Key’s suggested single referendum processs at the 2011 election. This is his suggested alternative: ‘the first referendum would ask if voters wanted change, and if so what sort of change. That is, a list of no more than, say, half a dozen flags could be offered for voters to debate. Which half dozen? That could be decided by parliament at a pinch; or better, a hastily convened panel. If there was majority support at this year's election for a vote on the flag, then it could be held at the 2017 election, where the current flag could go up against the alternative chosen by voters. That's a much more democratic way of proceeding’ – see: The hasty NZ flag debate – is this the time and place?
Today the Herald also finds fault with Key’s suggested process of change (while agreeing with changing the flag): ‘The selection of a design to be put before the public should not made by senior ministers; it should be entrusted to a panel of vexillologists, artists and designers’ – see: Key needs to be bolder on flag change.
What is most interesting about the debate so far is the degree of support for change amongst politicians, even if they disagree about the process and preferred outcome. For the best coverage of the MP opinions, see Stacey Kirk and Michael Fox’s NZ flag changes open for discussion.
The process will certainly involve Maori. As the above article says, Greens co-leader Russel Norman has said that Maori should be consulted about the change and it also reports that ‘Mana leader Hone Harawira said he wanted to see the Tino Rangatiratanga flag used’.
Competing flag designs
There might end up being a majority in favour of changing the current flag, but an absence of consensus about what to change it to. Obviously plenty of further debate is required but much, in fact, has already occurred. The New Zealand Herald ran a campaign in 2010 about changing the flag – see: Patriots agree: Time to change the NZ flag. And the newspaper asked its readers to design the new flag – you can see 47 options here: Alternative NZ flag designs.
The silver fern on a black flag appears to be a very popular alternative, and one that the Prime Minister is pushing. Not all are convinced. The Herald says: ‘That has become a de facto national ensign at many international sporting events, but it may not be suitable for a national flag, for the same reason Australia's boxing kangaroo will never be that country's official ensign’ – see: Key needs to be bolder on flag change. The newspaper says there are a number of possible symbols to use: ‘the Southern Cross and the silver fern but also, potentially, the kiwi or the koru’.
Newstalk ZB talkback host, Andrew Dickens has also been thinking about this issue for some time, and opposes using the silver and black design: ‘That's a sporting flag. That's a flag with corporate connections. It's also a flag that has the silver fern on it which suggests to some not familiar with New Zealand the white feather of surrender. Suggestions that I and the talkback callers favoured was the military flag that features the kiwi’ – see: On flags and ferals.
And although most consider the black and silver flag to be entirely unique, blogger Peter Cresswell asks if Key is ‘really that keen to get rid of the old flag that he wants us to be the only sovereign nation in the world to have have a flag that could be confused for the black flag of Al Qaeda’ – see: Flagging interest? And for more about competing designs, see Newstalk ZB’s Widespread political support for changing NZ flag.
A recent Listener editorial has said Just do it, and it goes back through some of the history and debate around changes to the flag as well as providing some illustrations of alternatives.
For a full history of flags and changes in New Zealand, see the Te Ara Encyclopedia Story of Flags, and the Wikipedia entry on the New Zealand flag debate. But it's also important to note what colours are popular in flags – see the University of Canterbury’s Popularity of national flag colours calculated.
RSA, war, and nationalism
With flags being so closely related to war, it’s not surprising that the Returned Service Association are sensitive about a change – see Stacey Kirk’s RSA opposed to flag change. But the changes are not necessarily insurmountable – see Dan Satherley’s Old flag could still fly, say campaigners. It’s also worth noting that the silver fern emblem has been used militarily before – see Pete George’s blogpost, Silver fern emblem used in Boer War.
There is a likelihood that the flag changing debate will produce an upswell of nationalism. Of course, that’s what flags are all about. And whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your point of view. John Key has been reported as saying that ‘He wished New Zealand's national day was similar to Australia Day, with shows of patriotism such as flag-waving’ – see Isaac Davison’s PM tests water for NZ flag change. The consequences and ramifications of that need to be debated too. Are we taking the New Zealand flag far too seriously?
Finally, the flag debate is in full flight on social media. To see some of what is being said on Twitter – both entertaining and insightful – see my blogpost, Top tweets about changing the New Zealand flag.
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