Hard News by Russell Brown


The flagging referendum

Called to account on Morning Report on Monday for the strong support for keeping the current national flag indicated by recent polls, Prime Minister John Key gave a strange answer.

"It's (a) very early days," Key told Guyon Espiner, which seemed an odd thing to say in the week that final referendum ballots are actually being distributed to households.

"You don't know. The second point is that, on some of the polling we see the, y'know, the numbers of people who are decided they will definitely vote for the current flag is falling. And so what you see in the public polls at the moment is all of the undecideds, all of the y'know, possibly go with the current flag is being geared up into the no vote. That may be what transpires on the day but it also may not be. There's certainly a credible case I could mount for you where it'll change."

Espiner observed that didn't seem terribly convincing. Key responded:

"It you look at a more granulated question we've been asking that for some time now. Do you definitely want to keep the current flag, that's falling. And it's been falling a little more rapidly in recent weeks, just as people have been starting to I think really firm up which way they're going. And you're relying on the sort of poll question they've asked, just takes all that out."

When pressed, Key volunteered that National's polling said that "under half" of those polled "want to definitely keep" the current flag. If that answer sounds familiar, it's because it's exactly what Key said in an interview with Espiner on the same programme nearly six months ago.

He actually expressed himself a bit better back then – managing to get out the word "granular", rather than "granulated" – but the point is this: the government has been polling hard for months on the flag referendum via the National Party's internal polling company, Curia. And it's employing a style of questioning that basically has two functions.

It's the "Are you really, really sure? How sure are you?" question, and in public polling it's most often deployed to try and assess the likelihood of a respondent actually voting. In private polling, like that done by Curia, it's an attempt to find out how persuadable people are. Depending on the question, I might have found myself  among the Prime Minister's persuadables – I would certainly be open to changing the flag if the alternative was better. But going on the identical answers given in the two interviews, National is not having a lot of luck persuading people.

A reasonable person might ask why the governing party is so keen to be persuading people towards one side of a referendum in which, by definition, it is seeking the voice of the people. At the least, it should make it hard for the government to accuse other parties of "politicising" that decision.

But that shouldn't matter. We should vote for the flag we like. I voted for Red Peak in the first round of the referendum even though public polling told me it was going to get creamed, which it duly did.

When the two Lockwood flags crushed all others in the first round, there was quite a bit of commentary to the effect that the majority had spoken and we should now all fall into line and vote for the winning fern flag. As I noted at the time:

It’s rather a depressing argument: that no matter what we think or why we think it, we should just buckle under and shuffle along with the crowd. As an assertion of national identity, it might be a bit too telling.

The taking of positions on the flag has made for some odd bedfellows: inveterate lefties have found common cause with monarchists. It's a point former Green MP Keith Locke makes in a Daily Blog post that seeks to knock out a list of reasons put up by opponents to a flag change. I actually agree with some of what he says – the mere desire to give John Key a black eye should not guide a decision for the ages – but he almost skips over the actual point of the referendum, which is to choose between flag designs.

6. The Lockwood design is too bad to vote for. Fair enough if you really don’t like it don’t vote for it. People differ on what is a good design and a lot of people will disagree with any design chosen. Given the way symbols have been used in New Zealand in recent years the most popular flag was always going to have either a fern or a koru on it, and perhaps a southern cross. Kyle Lockwood’s design won because it combined two of these symbols and for traditionalists it didn’t depart too much from the original flag, with a southern cross on a blue background.

The other way of looking at that is that a change to the Lockwood flag is by Locke's own definition not the "progressive change" he seeks. I thought Keith Ng encapsulated this really well in a recent post here:

To say that left-wingers are hating on the Lockwood flag out of spite for Key assumes that removing the Union Jack is fundamentally progressive.

But it’s not. It’s about tweaking the symbol of the status quo so it can go for another hundred years.

Flags are symbolic by definition. And quite apart from its mere aesthetic shortcomings, the alternative on which we are asked to vote symbolises a fudge. A fudge we're supposed to carry for generations.

Amid the flurry of enthusiasm for change that followed the first round of the referendum in December, John Roughan concluded an argument for change with this peculiarly unenthusiastic paragraph.

Few national flags probably had the wow-factor when first conceived. We need a new flag, the old one looks even more dated now than it did last week. The chosen alternative may be an amateurish pastiche of the old and new but it is the way we are. It is recognisably us. It will do fine.

It's revealing to go back to June last year and read Roughan's column on his discovery of another referendum contender, Blair Chant's "beautiful, elegant and dignified" koru-themed Long White Cloud design. He enthuses about its technical merits, imagines where it would fly, thinks about what it would say.

Roughan began that June column by declaring that "There is no point talking about changing the flag until we find one that says, yes, this is us, now," and closed it with the words: "This is it, isn't it."

Six months later, his argument for the Lockwood flag could be paraphrased as "It's a bit shit. But then, so are we."

It would be hard to come up with a more bleak indictment of the choice we're presented with and the process that led to it than the gulf between those two columns. Rather than encapsulating who we are and what we want to be, that gulf sums up what's wrong with us.

So no, even though I have no great love for the current flag, I will not be voting for the alternative.

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