The Flag Debate

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues.

Last Thursday, the legislation clearing the way for the referenda on changing New Zealand’s flag was passed by Parliament. The government has adopted a non-partisan approach to the flag consideration project, by involving a cross-party committee of MPs, who helped refine Cabinet’s initial proposals for the new law.

The New Zealand Flag Referendums Bill creates a referendum process that will uphold the decision of New Zealanders on whether or not they want to change the country’s flag. If a majority of citizens vote for a new flag, the bill enables it to become official by amending the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981.

The bill provides for two binding referenda: the first will determine which of four alternative flag designs is preferred by voters, and the second will decide whether that preferred alternative flag – or the current flag – will be New Zealand’s flag.

The first flag referendum will utilise preferential voting, with voters asked to rank the four flags from their most favoured option to their least favoured option, while the second referendum will, of course, use first past the post voting, to decide between the new and the old flag.

The legislation specifies that each referendum will be by postal vote – postage accounts for the bulk of the $26 million cost of the project – with a 21-day voting period provided. The date of each referendum will be set by Order in Council, with at least 90 days between the passage of the Bill and the first referendum, and another 90 days before the second referendum. The first referendum is expected to be held in November and December, and the second referendum in March next year.

Voting in favour of the Bill in Parliament were National, United Future, ACT and the Maori Party, while against were Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First.

The politics of the vote is fascinating. Essentially Labour voted against the Bill because it was John Key’s idea, the Greens opposed it because it didn’t go far enough, and New Zealand First so opposed having the debate at all, that they boycotted the cross-party Parliamentary committee.

The difficulty for the Labour Party is that changing the flag was part of their 2014 election manifesto: “Labour will review the design of the New Zealand flag involving flag design experts and with full public consultation and involvement. We believe that the time has come for a change and it is right for the issue to be put to the public.”

Asked, before the election, whether New Zealand should change its flag, Labour Leader Andrew Little, said, “Yes, my personal opinion is we should have something more relevant to an independent, small Asia/Pacific nation. The elements I would like to see in a flag are the Southern Cross, blue for the sea, green for the land and mountains, and a reference to our Maori heritage”.

In response to the question, “Should there be a referendum?” he replied, “I think a referendum is a suitable way to deal with an issue that can be very polarising”.

To promise to review the flag through a referendum process before the election, and then vote against a Bill to review the flag through a referendum process, demonstrates a level of hypocrisy that devalues their credibility as an alternative government.

While Andrew Little has now announced that he’s not going to vote in the referendum at all, his colleague Trevor Mallard intends sabotaging the process by ranking the flag he likes the best last and the flag he likes the least first, in order to make sure a new flag loses in the second referendum.

The Greens opposed the flag bill, because, as far as constitutional reform is concerned, they believe changing the flag does not go far enough. Yes, they want to replace the flag, but at the same time they want to replace our Constitutional Monarchy – and the Queen as Head of State – with a Republic and an elected President.

To lead the discussion and select alternative flag designs, a Flag Consideration Panel was appointed in February. The chairman, Professor John Burrows QC, was also co-chair of the Constitutional Advisory Panel, and the deputy chair is writer and reviewer Kate de Goldi. Other panel members are Nicky Bell, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand; Peter Chin, Former Mayor of Dunedin; Julie Christie, Director of Julie Christie Inc; Rod Drury, CEO of Xero; Olympian Beatrice Faumuina; Lt Gen Rhys Jones, Former Chief of NZ Defence Force; Stephen Jones, Invercargill Youth Councillor; former All Blacks captain Sir Brian Lochore; flag historian Malcolm Mulholland; and Maori studies academic Hana O’Regan.

The Panel conducted 25 public meetings around the country, involved themselves in 6,000 other events, and received 10,292 design submissions for a new flag – some of which have been featured internationally by TV host John Oliver on his satirical show Last Week Tonight!

From the designs, a short list of 40 has now been selected, and from these, four finalists will be chosen to feature in the first referendum. The Panel’s decision on these will be reported to the Deputy Prime Minister next month, ready to be authorised by Cabinet and added to the first referendum voting paper.

So do we need a new flag?

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, David Round, a lecturer in law at the University of Canterbury, has been considering this question:

“It is nonsense to say that we need a new flag in order to express our identity as a nation. Our current flag expresses our identity perfectly well. There is the blue of the Pacific, across which all our ancestors, Polynesian and Briton, sailed to this new land; there, against the blue of the heavens, is the Southern Cross, the great constellation of our skies; and in one corner, there is the flag of the old country from whom, up until very recently anyway, all of us, Maori included, could trace their descent, the country that gave us our language, our government and laws, our culture, the country which more than any other has shaped absolutely every last New Zealander. I do not see that its presence on our flag is so dreadfully inappropriate. Our current flag does express our identity. I have read the claim that a new flag would represent all of us. The existing one does that. New immigrants to this country come here to become like us. When people talk about needing a new flag in order to express our identity, what they actually mean is that they do not like the identity we have now. They want a new identity. They should be honest about this. But they are not, and they dare not be, because if we were allowed to discuss the question we might come up with some answers that the cultural powers would dislike. So we are just told that we are bicultural or multicultural ~ claims both dubious and, if true, dangerous.”

Contrary to popular wisdom, our present New Zealand flag is our third flag. Our first flag was that of the United Tribes of New Zealand, authorised in 1834 to ensure Kiwi trading ships had an official ensign to sail under. Our second flag, Britain’s Union Jack, represented us from the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi until the turn of the century. Concerns raised about the status of naval ships in the 1860s, however, resulted in the use of the blue ensign, with the Union Jack in the left hand corner and a symbol of the colony on the right. This eventually led to our current flag, which was officially adopted in 1902.

The Herald recently published a graphic showing that many Commonwealth countries had flags similar in design to ours. Of the 20 countries listed, only New Zealand and three others have not modernised their flag:

Also contrary to popular belief, is the fact that while our soldiers fought and died under our flag, many Commonwealth graves carry the emblem of the silver fern, not the flag. The silver fern was first worn by New Zealand troops in 1853 and was adopted by our rugby team in the 1880s. It is now used by our army, navy, police, fire fighters, and sports teams. It can be found on our money, our passports, our national airline, and soon, it will even be on rockets sending satellites into space.

Last week, John Key, released a video outlining his rationale for wanting to change the flag – and he was not afraid to say that he favours a design that includes the silver fern to better represent modern-day New Zealand. He believes a new flag chosen by Kiwis will build patriotism and national pride – a flag people will want to wear on their clothing and fly on a regular basis, a flag that will be recognisable by people around the world in the same way that the maple leaf epitomises Canada, and the stars and stripes, the USA.

The Prime Minister wants all New Zealanders to be involved in making the decision about whether or not to change our flag, through an open democratic process, rather than having the government decide. And while there are accusations that the project is a waste of time and money, isn’t this the price we pay for democracy?

Whether we like it or not, in a few months time, there will be a referendum on the flag.

The Flag Consideration Panel is about to select the best four designs from their short-list of 40 to include on the referendum voting paper. Since there doesn’t appear to be any public consultation for this part of the process, the NZCPR has created one.

In the event that our current flag is replaced by a new one, we are asking all newsletter readers to look at the 40 designs that have been short-listed, and decide which one you would most like to see as the option to consider against our current flag. Each of those 40 flag designs has been numbered, so you can submit it as your choice in this week’s poll. If everyone votes, we will soon have a good indication of which designs are the most popular.

The poll will remain open for a week – the usual time-span for our weekly polls – after which, we will inform the Flag Consideration Panel of our four most popular designs, in order to assist them in their important deliberation.

THIS WEEK’S POLL ASKS:

If the New Zealand flag has to be changed, which of the 40 flag designs would you most like to see as the replacement?

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