NZ POLITICS DAILY: The politics of flag-waving and change

Bryce Edwards

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


Today’s content

‘Baby bonus’

Nelson Mail (Stuff): Editorial: Parties hit the trail running up promises

Vernon Small (Stuff): Time to splash the cash

Tali Williams (Daily Blog): $60 a start, but welfare reforms must go too

Rob Salmond (Polity): Snivelling about media coverage: Ep. 1

Vernon Small (Stuff): Key blasts Labour baby bonus

Simon Collins (Herald): Labour's baby bonus - a waste or a boon?

Brook Sabin (TV3): Cunliffe admits policy speech error

Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB): Labour scores first in election campaign

Radio NZ: Parties opening wallets for election

Patrick Gower (TV3): Opinion: Labour dishonest on 'baby bonus'

Fran O'Sullivan (Herald): Baby bonus clear tilt at ballot box

Greg Presland (The Standard): Gower plays a shocker

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Baby bribe details not made clear

The Standard: Note to Media – check your facts.

Ele Ludemann (Homepaddock): Baby bribe threshold higher than $150,000

Danyl McLauchlan (Dim-Post): Something that’s bugged me for a while

Jade Cooper and Felix Marwick (Newstalk ZB): Think-tank call baby payment 'waste of money'

Russell Wills (Stuff): Children deserve more

Rob Hosking (NBR): Election 2014: achievement vs welfare

The Standard: Useless and venal

Gintearsandcremebrulee: I call bullshit

The Ruminator: How’s yer nation?

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Political pay-back promises piling up

The Press: Editorial – More to come in election year

Danyl Mclauchlan (Dim-Post): Calvinball redux

Danyl Mclauchlan (Dim-Post): Another Orewa?


Parliament speeches

Herald: Editorial: National in no mood to rock the election boat

The Standard: Opposing the PM’s statement

Simon Collins and Adam Bennett (Herald): Key launches scathing attack on Cunliffe's credibility

Dan Satherley (TV3): 'Tricky' Cunliffe has priorities wrong – Key

Felix Marwick (Newstalk ZB): Cunliffe under attack for opening speech

John Armstrong (Herald): Labour tries silent tactics

Rob Salmond (Polity): Key in self-parody about lying

Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): If Cunliffe repeats his opening speech during the election – Labour will win 2014 election

NBR Staff (NBR): State of the nation speeches good for National, Greens – iPredict

Claire Trevett (Herald): Labour's newest MP Poto Williams gives maiden speech

The Standard: State of Nations

Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): Cunliffe 'pulling the wool' over tax policies


New flag

Claire Trevett (Herald): After baby-kissing theatrics comes flag waving

Tim Watkin (Pundit): The hasty NZ flag debate – is this the time and place?

Dan Satherley (TV3): Old flag could still fly, say campaigners

Barry Soper (Newstalk ZB): Chief flag waver looking at change

Andrew Dickens (Newstalk ZB): On flags and ferals

Will de Cleene (Gonzo): Black Flag, White Flag

Stacey Kirk (Stuff): RSA opposed to flag change

Peter Cresswell (Not PC): Flagging interest?

Greg Presland (The Standard): The flag diversion

Pete George (Your NZ): Silver fern emblem used in Boer War

Stacey Kirk and Michael Fox (Stuff): NZ flag changes open for discussion

Peter Wilson (Newswire): Labour backs flag referendum

Isaac Davison (Herald): Key suggests vote on New Zealand flag

Herald: Editorial: Key needs to be bolder on flag change

Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Time to change the flag. To what?

Isaac Davison (Herald): PM tests water for NZ flag change

TVNZ: New flag for NZ: PM considering referendum

No Right Turn: A referendum on the flag?

Patrick Gower (TV3): Flag change could be Key's legacy

Barry Soper, Felix Marwick, Jade Cooper, and Newstalk ZB Staff (Newstalk ZB): Widespread political support for changing NZ flag

Radio NZ: Flag must be for all cultures – group

Will Matthews (Left Estate): Playing Politics


Paid parental leave

Vernon Small (Stuff): More cash and Key hints at extra leave

TVNZ: Extension to paid parental leave could be this year

Felix Marwick and Laura McQUillan (Newstalk ZB):Paid parental leave Bill may lack numbers



TVNZ: Overvalued NZ dollar 'a concern'

Newswire: Date set for election year Budget

Adam Bennett (Herald): English announces Budget 2014 delivery date

Radio NZ: NZ economy improving now - Moody's

Radio NZ: NZ businesses confident

Vernon Small (Stuff): Sea change as economy recovers

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Treasury downplays expectations


Parliament attendance

Dan Satherley (TV3): 'Twiddling thumbs' in Parliament not for Hone

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Key scores own goal with attendance

Adam Bennett (Herald): Harawira: Shame over non-attendance sits with Key

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): 68 days off

Radio NZ: Harawira wins Tirikatene's support

John Minto (Daily Blog): Why has John Key sets his sights on Hone Harawira?

Dominion Post: Editorial: Attendance a part of any job


Whaleoil DOS attack

Matthew Backhouse (Herald): Blogger moves family after death threats

Scott Yorke (Imperator Fish): In the newsroom

Andrew Geddes (Pundit): Don't talk to me about heroes ...

Radio NZ: Lots of calls to MP about blogger

Pete George (Your NZ): On Whale Oil versus West Coast



Newswire: Extra $10m for elective surgery

TVNZ: Government drives funding into elective surgery

Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Elective surgery gets boost

Newswire: $10m surgery funding boost 'not enough'

Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Health agency hamstrung on legal high advice


Human rights

Corazon Miller and Tyler Adams (Newstalk ZB): NZ's human rights record could be improved

TV3: Govt has 'pattern' of ignoring human rights - Amnesty

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Greens think NZ is shameful when it comes to human rights



James Weir (Stuff): Academic attacks electricity report

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Another made up figure


Inequality and poverty

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Days of zero pay rises should be over – English

Radio NZ: English rejects claims inequality worse

Adam Bennett (Herald): Disputed statistics on income inequality

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Mitchell on income inequality

Graeme Aitken (Herald): Focus on social inequality will aid teachers

Tracy Watkins and Georgina Stylianou (Stuff): English backs boost in wages

Pattrick Smellie (Stuff): Gap between rich and poor a muddy margin

Louise Berwick (Stuff): Homeless problem 'worse than believed'

ODT: Mind the gap

RadioLIVE: Workers encouraged to ask for a raise

Mike Treen (Daily Blog): Billions of dollars stolen from the unemployed

MCDP: Income Inequality - Better or Worse?



Newswire: New 1080 plan should be the new standard – Forest & Bird

Newswire: Environment watchdog praises 1080 move

Bill More (Stuff): DOC to increase 1080 drops in 'battle for our birds'



Adam Bennett (Herald): Watchdog's warning on data harvest

Radio NZ: No free lunch with apps – Shroff

No Right Turn: Mass-surveillance is illegal II



Adam Bennett (Herald): More forestry prosecutions tipped

Helen Kelly (The Standard): Is it always better late than never?


Rebstock report

Laura McQuillan (Newstalk ZB): Call for apologies to senior diplomats

No Right Turn: A total witch-hunt


Religious education

Danielle Street (Stuff): School Bible studies challenged

No Right Turn: School religious education goes to the HRC


NZ FIrst

Newswire: NZ First researchers 'unfairly sacked'

Pete George (Your NZ): Winston Peters versus John Key

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Drug use spreads at the Herald


‘Facebook ban’

Tova O’Brien (TV3): Facebook ban ridiculed by Govt

Peter Wilson (Newswire): 'We won't ban Facebook' - Labour



Scott Pickering (Stuff): ACC 'can and will do better'

Ellipsister: National signs NZ up to Ethiopia land grab

Caleb Harris (Stuff): Public invited to comment on legal high ban

Stuff: Today in politics: Thursday, January 30

Isaac Davison (Herald): Pacific people need to bring back entrepreneurial spirit

Tristram Clayton (TV3): Cash-for-residency: My Group Ltd owner denies knowledge

Radio NZ: Training groups named

Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Productivity Commission suggests overhaul

Richard Meadows (Stuff): New lending rules

Talia Carlisle (Stuff): 1981 Springbok tour revisited

Lesley Deverall (Newstalk ZB): Predictions of a September election

Catherine Harris (Stuff): Bill shakes up accounting sector

Michael Fox (Stuff): Training organisations concerned about law change

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Getting overly excited over a Guardian story

No Right Turn: Charter schools are funded at triple the rate of state schools

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Does Labour think RNZAF should stick with analog planes?

Karl du Fresne: Accepting the intolerable

Bill Wells (ODT): Oil users cannot deny drillers

Lauren Priestly (Stuff): Leaky home's $550k repair bill not the worst of it

Sue Kedgley (Herald): Keep our cows out of factory farms

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2 Comments & Questions

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The cynical might observe that John Key might do anything to retain power? Even resorting to dumping the flag issue into the middle of an election year campaign to try to gain some advantage which had been researched by his research focus groups? Not being one of the cynics I'm certain that he's doing it for the good of the nation and for posterity.

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Key was asked this question by a reporter - for Maori TV I believe. He didn't raise it himself.

The distraction has been a real life saver for Labour and Cunliffe with their disastrous Facebook gaffes and both of Cunliffe's baby breeding bribes.

Labour will be well pleased it's a Friday!

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