Sunday, March 20, 2016

I barely recognise my fellow New Zealanders

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 18.)

In his best-selling 1976 book The Passionless People, journalist Gordon McLauchlan famously called his fellow New Zealanders smiling zombies – basically decent, but smug and complacent.
I wonder what he makes of the extraordinary kerfuffle over the flag.

Every so often in New Zealand, an issue comes up that seems to rouse us from our inertia. It happened in 1981 when the Springboks came and it’s happened again, albeit without the flour bombs and Minto bars (the affectionate name given to the long  batons wielded in 1981 by the police), over the past few weeks.
The flag debate has exposed an ornery, cranky streak in the national character.  I keep waiting for the tumult to abate, but the letters to the editor keep coming and the radio talkback lines continue to run hot.

Who could honestly say they saw all this rage and fury coming? I bet John Key didn’t.  
He probably thought this was his best shot at making history – the one potentially memorable act of a political career otherwise defined by carefully calculated pragmatism in the finest National Party tradition.

What he surely couldn’t have imagined was that the flag referendum would lift the lid on a seething, boiling, often contradictory mess of emotions, some of which are only tenuously connected with the flag.
I barely recognise my fellow New Zealanders. McLauchlan probably doesn’t either.

We’re normally a stolid, easy-going lot, but the referendum has ignited unexpectedly intense passions encompassing wildly conflicting notions of nationhood, identity, culture and history.
The problem, for those who make it their business to understand such phenomena, is that it’s impossible to detect any particular pattern in the rage. We’re all over the place.

For some, the vote on the flag is a referendum on Key. Regardless of how much they might like the idea of a new flag, it’s an irresistible chance to inflict a damaging blow on a prime minister whose imperturbable blandness is almost as maddening to them as his popularity.
For others, the debate is all about our British heritage. They see the alternative silver fern design as a denial of who we are and all that we’ve gained as a result of Britain’s civilising influence.

Other traditionalists have convinced themselves that New Zealand soldiers died fighting for the current flag and that to change it would dishonour their memory.
Then there are those – let’s call them the anti-beach towel camp – who are favourably disposed toward a change of flag but withering in their contempt for the Kyle Lockwood design. For them, it’s largely about aesthetics.

Oh, and I almost forgot those who  complain bitterly about the cost, although the same objection - "a scandalous waste of money!" - could be applied to any vaguely contentious government initiative.
Good luck to anyone trying to find a common thread here. As I wrote in a column last year, there are four and a half million New Zealanders and four and a half million opinions on the flag.

Not only does everyone have their own idea about what the flag should look like, but many can’t understand why other people don’t agree with them. This translates into a cantankerous, one-eyed intolerance that is strikingly at odds with our reputation as easy-going people.
What’s clear is that there will never be a consensus. Whatever the flag design, some people are bound to hate it. It follows that arguments about the flag are doomed to go around in circles, which is pretty much what’s been happening over the past few weeks.

This is one instance in which the democratic process turns out to be imperfect. It can be a prescription for permanent paralysis.
If the referendum results in a “no” vote, as seems likely, we’ll either be stuck with the present flag in perpetuity, or a new one will have to be imposed on us.

Actually, that mightn’t be so bad. Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson championed a change of flag against intense opposition in 1964. The people had no direct say. But Canadians are happy with the unique and distinctive maple-leaf flag that resulted, and who knows – perhaps New Zealanders could eventually learn to love the Lockwood flag too.
Is it the best possible design? Of course not. There can be no best possible design, because that’s a subjective judgment. (In any case, it could only be the best possible design until someone comes up with a better one.) But I don’t think it looks like a beach towel.

And despite what the jaundiced critics and Key-haters say, the selection process was impeccably democratic. It just delivered a slightly weird outcome.
Now it’s down to us, the voters. If we genuinely believe in democracy, we’ll graciously accept the result whatever it is.

And if we end up opting for the status quo, it won’t have been a complete waste of time. If nothing else, the debate has shown that we’re a more devoutly patriotic lot than we thought, and not quite as passionless as McLauchlan supposed.  


Jigsaw said...

I think you would find that Gordon McLaughlin would be against the new flag-old socialists would not I think be in favour of change.

Aptenodytes said...

"the selection process was impeccably democratic"

You're wrong here. The referenda were obviously democratic, as was the fact that anyone could submit a design. Whereas the panel's culling of over ten thousand flags down to four was utterly undemocratic (and in my view that was where the process was fatally flawed). Two were virtually identical, the other two were black and white and clearly chosen to fail (who really thinks 50% of Kiwis were going to vote in a black and white flag?) So the panel gave us Lockwood or nothing. We got nothing. The unelected panel were not qualified to represent 4 million Kiwis. [By the way I went through the 10,000+ submissions and came up with a very different long-list of 40, the best had the striking simplicity of the Canada / Japan flags; in my view the panel rejected - or failed to consider - the best designs.]

If we had a time machine and started again we'd slow down the whole process and let the public vote informally on the 10,000 submissions as a culling process. There would be many ways of doing this, even something as simple as Facebook "likes". Time would sort the wheat from the chaff. Give people time to fly their favourite designs (and I mean literally fly them, e.g., at sporting matches). A serious contender would rise, and at the time of the final referendum it would be clear that it was the people's favourite.

One of the sad things about this process is that it was clear early on that many people strongly disliked the final four - myself included - and that alone sounded the death knell for change. Once people realised they wanted all flags to fail (the four/five alternatives and perhaps our existing flag as well) there was little left to do but play politics or bicker about the cost etc.

For the record I am staunchly supportive of a new flag but voted for our current flag solely due to my contempt for the alternative. Our current flag is an obsolete relic of a colonial past, whereas the Lockwood flag would have been an embarrassment into the future.

Karl du Fresne said...

The choice of the final four was surely a failure of judgment rather than process.

Aptenodytes said...

A failure of both, I think. I.e., the panel had poor judgment and picked the 'wrong' flags, and the process had no way of correcting this. If the act of whittling the 10,000 down to a handful had been done by the public prior to a formal vote (i.e., the first referendum) then the panel's judgment would be irrelevant.

paul scott said...

The entire shambles was a failure of process, and democracy. Vote for the new flag here.