Flag Consideration Panel fails miserably

With that single act of collective foolishness, the Flag Panel ensured it would become the subject of public derision.

“They can have a choice of colours as long as it’s black.”

The words so famously uttered by Henry Ford when he launched his Model T may as well apply to the choices John Burrows’ Flag Consideration Panel has provided for the public – your choice must include some part of a fern. 

With that single act of collective foolishness, the Flag Panel ensured it would become the subject of public derision.  If the prime minister’s instructions at the outset had been “pick me the four best silver fern-based designs,” the panel’s short list would be the same. So why the charade?

Therein lies the tragedy – the public has due cause to see this as a jack up because the panel, whether consciously or otherwise (it doesn’t matter) has limited the options to variants of what the prime minister wants rather than providing genuine choice. That cynicism sucks and has undermined any vestige of independence or accommodation of concepts beyond the prime minister’s silver fern fetish. “Sycophantic” is the best description of this panel’s collective intelligence. 

Virtually all professional designers of note in New Zealand – those who make their living from designs – have  condemned the panel’s selection of tea towels of Kiwiana. That is a very telling denunciation of the process that John Burrows and his team have conducted and the expertise it has apparently employed. Despite Professor Burrows’ assurances that his group consulted professional designers, his unwillingness to provide any transparency to the processes speaks far louder than his paternalistic assurances. He’s failed to name the professional advice or have it assessed by their peers in any transparent fashion. That renders his panel’s approach amateurish and sloppy.

The one contribution the panel has made is to acknowledge that the Union Jack is not an appropriate element on an alternative New Zealand flag. The current flag contains it and in the second referendum the public will decide whether or not we agree with that proposition. But to then tell all New Zealanders that the silver fern is a compulsory part of any alternative, makes a farce of the “what do you stand for” marketing byline. The process is either a genuine, apolitical one where the prime minister and All Black captain’s preference for a silver fern is no more relevant than the preferences of anyone else, or it is a contrivance where this panel has decided for whatever reason to give the public no option to vote for anything that doesn’t align with the prime minister’s preference. 

The only way for the panel and the process to regain integrity is for it to back up the bus and add some genuine alternatives without silver fern parts as options in the first referendum. That would of course require a mea culpa on the part of the panel and/or the prime minister, so I don’t hold my breath on that score.

There is gathering support for the flag design called “Red Peak” by Aaron Dustin. It is pretty similar to the one that won the competition we sponsored. That competition was specifically tailored to accommodate contributions from and judging by professional designers and vexillologists. The only difference from Wa Kainga/Home by Alexander Studio is juxtaposition of the red and the black triangles. The story underpinning the two designs recognises the existence of tangata whenua – which in itself is real progress for a depiction of who we, the New Zealanders, include. “Red Peak” was not entered in our competition.

The panel’s insult to the public of New Zealand has been even further compounded by panel member Malcolm Mulholland’s condescending response to the suggestion that a fifth flag could be added to the final four in order to provide at least some real choice. Mulholland retorted that Red Peak “…can’t be added. It’s not going to be added.”

“One thing that we found was most people we spoke to struggled with abstract designs, of which that is one.”

That really sums up the limitation, not just of the panel’s collective ability to think beyond the Prime Minister’s preference but also the contempt in which it holds the notion that New Zealanders should be given effective choice. Being forced to choose between 3 full fern designs or the circinate vernation of a fern frond (koru), is sickeningly reminiscent of that Henry Ford moment.

This has not been a process with integrity. It has been a gerrymandering of a process billed as enabling the public to choose an alternative design. Why should the public respect be manipulated like that?

We should all support Red Peak – not just as an example of a flag design that demonstrates genuine vexillology skills, but more importantly as a rejection of this process where the public has been manipulated by the Prime Minister and a sycophantic panel, which has failed to serve the public interest.

Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator who in previous lives has been an investment manager. This post first appeared on Gareth's World.

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