Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


The flag referendum: complicating your decision

I published a Q&A on how to vote in the first flag referendum, and because a first-past-the-post election with two choices is one of the few voting systems that cannot be gamed, I was going to write a half-joking post with a single question for this one:

How do I vote in the flag referendum?

You have two flags to choose between. Put a tick next to the flag you prefer.

Only, before I got around to writing it, I realised it was wrong. This vote isn’t at all like an ordinary first past the post vote. And the analysis isn’t obvious like the vote in the first flag referendum, or in a mayoral election run using single transferable vote.

Casting an effective vote in an FPP election can require you to have a lot of information. If you want your vote to make a difference, you may have to vote against your real preference. In our national elections, electorate races are run using the first past the post voting system, but the party vote is king, so it usually doesn’t make a big difference to the overall result.

But other elections may be different. You might hate, hate, hate your current mayor. But if want rid of them, and your council uses FPP, it may be better to vote for your second or third choice instead of the person you really want for mayor. If your favourite candidate has little chance of winning, voting for the lesser of two evils is a way to mitigate the damage.

Of course, no-one is obliged to cast their vote in this way. Parties and candidates don’t own voters There were people in Epsom who gave their party votes to ACT, and did not give their candidate votes to David Seymour. Good for them. A couple may have been confused, but I reckon there’s a good chance that most of them knew exactly what they were doing. Same with the voters who vote for the Green Party candidate in Ohariu: I reckon most of them are fully aware that voting for the Labour candidate would increase the chance of removing Peter Dunne from Parliament. And they’re fine with that: the Labour candidate seems not to have done enough to earn their votes. Maybe the next one will do better.

I firmly believe that there are no wasted votes, but for those voters whose aim is to cast a vote most likely to affect the outcome. this sort of conundrum isn’t supposed to happen when you’ve only got two options. Because, well, you’ve only got two options: Hitler or Stalin? Bush or Gore? Kang or Kodos? If there’s someone you like: great! If not, vote for whichever you prefer, however unpalatable your options might be.

But that probably doesn’t work this time.

Why is this? Because the vote is a one-off. Maybe. And it’s that “maybe” which is important.

We’ve had the current flag since 1902. If we adopt a new flag in this referendum, it’s probably sticking around for a while. Absent a revolution, it will be the flag we having through major constitutional change, even something like become a republic. It will probably be around for 80 or a 100 years.

But if we don’t change, then maybe there will be another chance to change. Ok, not within three years, probably not within the next 10 or even 20 years. Maybe it’s something that waits until we become a republic (if we become a republic), and maybe it doesn’t happen at all.

Which means your options can be complicated. You may hate the fact that the Union is in the first quarter of the New Zealand flag, and accordingly think that the blue and black Lockwood is an improvement, but you might still vote for the current flag, because you don’t think it’s enough of an improvement. You might be prepared to risk 30 years more with the 1902 flag, so that you can experience 30 years after that with a really really awesome flag.

Conversely, you might think that the Lockwood flag is actually worse than the current flag, but you might still vote for change, if you think rejecting the current alternative might mean a vote in 10 years’ time that might choose a flag you hate even more.

I haven’t got the answers.

If we reject the alternative flag, will we be offered another opportunity to change the flag? I don’t know.

If we were given another chance, how long would we have to wait? I don’t really know that either.

If there’s another alternative offered at some currently unknown future date what flag or flags will we be given to choose between?

Will they be better or worse than the current flag and better or worse than the current alternative flag? Well, that’s up to you, and you don’t know either.

How should you vote? I don’t know that either.

I’ve always liked the current New Zealand flag. I reckon it just looks really good. The stars are in good positions, well-sized, with those little borders, and the right number of points. I’m not much of a fan of the idea of becoming a republic – I’m not sure the alternative would be better, so why change – but every so often, I have a republican twinge. When MPs are commanded by Black Rod to attend the Speech from the Throne, or when the House has to seek permission from the Crown before they can debate certain bills, the idea of a Crown seems a little ridiculous. If Parliament reckons it should be sovereign, they should be a little more willing to tell the Crown to suck it.

But even so, I’ve often thought that if we ever did become a republic, I’d quite like to keep the current flag. But I’m actually ok with the alternative, so I’m still a little undecided. Maybe the next time, the choice will be worse :-)

A footnote on the flag referendum process

There have been complaints about the flag consideration and referendum process. There are other ways we could have done it (I supported one at the select committee) but this is fair way of doing it. Disagreement about the quality of the result doesn’t necessarily mean that the process through which it was obtained was bad.

We could have had a team of designers included on the Flag Consideration panel, but as long as they still sought public input, I can’t see they could have excluded the Lockwood design from the long list, or the short list. A lot of people don’t like the Lockwood flag, and we may see in a few weeks whether they are in the majority, but Kyle Lockwood’s fern design has been a popular alternative flag for quite some time.

Had we undertaken a different public process for choosing an alternative flag to run against the 1902 flag, I think it’s highly likely the alternative flag being offered in this referendum would have been Kyle Lockwood’s design. Although I guess it may have been the red, white and blue one. It’s not all that old, but it has actually stood the test of time. Some of the other alternative flags that have been proposed over the years have not.

On another note, I don’t know whether it is particular to New Zealanders, but we seem to have a tendency to try to make the word “political” do far too much. Any public vote is a political matter. The flag is a political. But New Zealanders often use the word “political”, when they really mean “partisan”. I disagree, but there is a reasonable argument that it shouldn’t be a partisan matter.

If your sole reason for voting one way or the other in the referendum is your view of John Key, then I have no problem with that. My view is that voters’ reasons are their own. Parties can choose to adopt positions on a range of issues, and they can be judged on those positions, or on the fact they even have an opinion, or on the fact they don’t.

But it is perfectly proper that others should feel differently, and consider it wrong that voters’ view on which flag they should vote for should have nothing to do with their views on a particular party or politician. It would be nice, however, if this criticism was made on the basis that the flag vote shouldn’t be a partisan matter. Of course it is political!

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