Ah, flag it: the NZ flag referendum is a failure of leadership, not civic engagement

I had not considered writing about the infernal flag referendum because I do not have any great interest in either of the flags currently on offer, nor the four on the first ballot. However, what I do have a great interest in is politics and the smoke bombs being hurled by commentators in the last week show a deliberate blindness to the failure in national leadership of which the flag referendum process is merely a symptom.

On Sunday 6 March, Jonathan Milne of the Sunday Star Times sniffingly claimed that New Zealanders were not “mature” enough to vote for a flag change, and as a result we were going to end up retaining our current flag. Milne is a bit miffed because he and some friends seeded the idea of New Zealand becoming a republic, or some such, so is quite invested in us doing things that make us less colonial and more… something else.

Mike Hoskings has been begging us to vote for the new flag on any and every media outlet he deigns to appear on. John Key has been trying to tell us we really should vote for a new flag whilst simultaneously attempting to show how little he cares whether we vote or not. Maggie Barry is at least very honest that she cares a great deal. Matthew Hooton has created a syndrome in his head to explain it all. All and sundry seem agreed that when the old flag is voted up and the new flag is voted down, it will be the fault of the critics of the flag referendum process in the Labour Party, the Greens and those most ragged and vicious of citizens, the Leftists.

The criticisms of those who have been critical of the flag referendum falls into four camps:

  • Critics are only against the new flag because they hate John Key.
  • Critics are only against the new flag because they are making it about politics.
  • Critics are only against the new flag because they lack the maturity to make a rational decision.
  • Critics are only against the new flag because they are unbearable snobs who claim to have greater expertise just because they have “degrees” in things like “design.”

There are critics of the new flag who are critical because: they have an irrational hate of John Key; they see it as a National Party conspiracy; they are immature conspiracy theorists who think this has something to do with the TPPA (it doesn’t, so just stop it); they get dew-eyed over the current flag because of a faux NZ history they have made up on the basis of ignorance and desire. There are those critics.

But that is not the majority of the critics. The majority of critics are disappointed and angry about the process used to select a new flag and feel it has failed our democracy. The majority of critics that I know want a new flag. They don’t like our current flag, particularly the connotations of the Union Jack. But they will vote for the current flag because they dislike the process more and want something better in the future. The flag referendum process is flawed.

A flag is not an election issue, yet the National Party included this amongst its third term promises. So when the referendum process was announced, there had been no attempt to take a bipartisan approach so that the two other largest parties in Parliament engaged, so that we had Andrew Little, James Shaw and Metiria Turei standing alongside John Key announcing their desire for a new flag and a process to achieve that. Instead we had John Key pontificating that we would be getting a new flag.

Secondly, telling us, rather than asking us, how it was going to happen was always going to be a problem. Once it had started it was never going to happen, but Andrew Little was right; the first referendum should have been a simple “do you want to change the current NZ flag” question. Everybody has an opinion on the current flag, but the process we are in never provided an opportunity to reach a consensus on change before we were at this point of two unpalatable choices. It’s like the government Ministers have never parented teenagers; involve them or there will be hell to pay.

Thirdly, the flag referendum committee created a process of selection that probably felt very inclusive around the board table but fell flat when exposed to the light of day. There were many respected and astute leaders on the committee who were hamstrung by the lack of public goodwill from the outset and by the lack of designers’ input. There was no trust that they had the skills for the design stage which was exacerbated by the unimaginative long list of 40 flags. They had lost the war well before the shortlist of four was chosen. The four flags were merely the memorial stones over a dead and buried process.

Finally, as tāngata whenua, the whole process has been strangely bereft of any discussion about our Treaty relationship. Bear with me: a flag is one step in creating a republic. In the past, whenever discussion turns to Aotearoa New Zealand becoming a republic, the relevance of te Tiriti o Waitangi has always been debated (often badly debated, but debated nevertheless). Yet the flag referendum has felt like people are talking about me, but not to me. There’s this group of predominantly Pākehā leaders over there talking about a flag and claiming either a koru, the Southern Cross (te pae mahutonga if you prefer) or the fern are significant symbols in our national identity like they’re organising a 1930s World Expo display. If we are partners then surely a shared committee of tāngata whenua and Crown representatives is the minimum we could have expected; why should the Crown’s hand-picked representatives pick a flag that will fly over all of us?

The flag referendum demonstrates a fatal flaw in the type of political leadership we have encouraged and enabled in this country. The current parliament is replete with leaders who are mono-lingual; only able to speak in the language of their interest and lobby groups. They have no idea how to unify a country; demonstrated by the clueless manner in which the government has chucked All Blacks at the flag referendum to get our support. Gone are the unifiers in National, in Labour, in the Greens who can rally us together for common cause; I fear we live in the failing era of democracy, the era of the Great Dividers. The flag referendum process is nothing less than a failure of character, integrity and courage in our national leadership.

One thought on “Ah, flag it: the NZ flag referendum is a failure of leadership, not civic engagement

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Flag-changing ought to be a grassroots movement capturing and being fuelled by ‘the spirit of the age’. This is an egotistical imposition by a leader who has so little good going for him that he feels the need to try and make his mark in this way. Sigh. Another whopping waste of money.

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