(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 2.)
I hesitated for a couple of days before casting my vote in the flag referendum last week. I thought it might be too difficult.I can be a shocking ditherer. Just deciding what to have for breakfast can leave me paralysed with indecision. But as it turned out, when the flag choices were starkly set out in front of me, I made up my mind almost instantly.
I had the advantage of having seen all five flags flying alongside one another only days before. They were flapping in a stiff north-westerly, which is how flags are most often seen in our wind-buffeted country. But I also saw how they looked during lulls in the gale, so was able to assess their merits both under stress and in repose.I opted for the Kyle Lockwood design featuring the silver fern and the Southern Cross, but with red in the top-left quadrant rather than the black of the other Lockwood design included in the five alternatives.
Is it wise to reveal how I voted? Probably not, given the vehemence of the flag debate. I should probably brace myself for hate mail and death threats.The intensity of people’s feelings about the referendum has been a surprise. All sorts of strange emotions have been uncorked.
A debate about the flag is all very well, but this one has become overheated to the point of inciting paranoia. On a talkback radio station last week, I heard a caller say he had phoned the Electoral Commission because he was worried that if he placed the figure 1 in the square underneath his favoured design, someone might turn it into a four.Another caller was convinced that the ballot paper had been designed so as to subtly encourage voters to support John Key’s personal favourite, which was the first option on the left.
It’s almost comically ironic that the country is tearing itself apart over what’s supposed to be a symbol of unity. But since I’ve declared my first preference, I might as well go further and list the order in which I ranked the designs.My No 2 choice was the black and white silver fern and No 3 was the second Lockwood design. I ranked the koru fourth and the so-called red peak last. If there was a way of showing that I felt the red peak should have been an extremely distant last, I would have so indicated.
Explaining why I voted the way I did is difficult because these things are subjective, but I found the two Lockwood designs aesthetically pleasing and unmistakeably emblematic of New Zealand, which is surely what a flag is supposed to be. This is not to say there may not be better alternatives.The monochromatic fern I quite liked because it’s simple, clean and emphatic. The koru design, too, is graphically strong and would be instantly recognisable wherever it was flown.
People have attacked some of these designs as resembling corporate logos, but I have yet to see anyone explain what mysterious quality distinguishes a flag from a logo. Neither can I see how the red peak magically avoids the disparaging logo comparison.A flag, it seems to me, is simply a national logo as opposed to a corporate one. Its essential qualities, surely, are that it should be instantly recognisable and should engender feelings of identification, empathy and pride.
The Lockwood design strikes me as being capable of doing all these things, although it may take time (as it did for Canadians to embrace the maple leaf).On the other hand, the red peak design fails from every standpoint. But the very fact that it was included in the referendum, at the last minute and largely as a result of a noisy social media campaign, says a lot about how the flag debate has been derailed.
The proposal for a new flag is widely regarded as John Key’s vanity project. It therefore was seen by his opponents as a means of damaging him politically.Key may poll highly but he’s nonetheless a polarising figure. People who dislike him, and there are plenty of them, have used the flag debate as an opportunity to get at him.
You’d have to say they largely succeeded. The late inclusion of the red peak design was seen as a defeat for Key because he’s known to favour a flag featuring the silver fern.In other words the issue has been politicised in a way that might not have happened had the change of flag been promoted by someone less polarising.
If the binding referendum in March results in a decisive rejection of the new flag, as seems likely, it could be as much a vote against Key as a statement of support for the present ensign. We won’t know, because the waters have become too muddied.An opportunity for an emphatic new statement of nationhood may have been lost because the issue has become so politicised. But at least no one will be able to say it hasn’t been thoroughly debated.