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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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
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David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Baby bribe details not made clear
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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
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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
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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
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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
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
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Greg Presland (The Standard): The flag diversion
Pete George (Your NZ): Silver fern emblem used in Boer War
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Peter Wilson (Newswire): Labour backs flag referendum
Isaac Davison (Herald): Key suggests vote on New Zealand flag
Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Time to change the flag. To what?
Isaac Davison (Herald): PM tests water for NZ flag change
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
Felix Marwick and Laura McQUillan (Newstalk ZB):Paid parental leave Bill may lack numbers
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
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
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John Minto (Daily Blog): Why has John Key sets his sights on Hone Harawira?
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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
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Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Elective surgery gets boost
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Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Health agency hamstrung on legal high advice
Corazon Miller and Tyler Adams (Newstalk ZB): NZ's human rights record could be improved
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Greens think NZ is shameful when it comes to human rights
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David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Another made up figure
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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
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?
Laura McQuillan (Newstalk ZB): Call for apologies to senior diplomats
No Right Turn: A total witch-hunt
Danielle Street (Stuff): School Bible studies challenged
No Right Turn: School religious education goes to the HRC
Newswire: NZ First researchers 'unfairly sacked'
Pete George (Your NZ): Winston Peters versus John Key
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Drug use spreads at the Herald
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
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
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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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