(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 9.)
Even as I opened the envelope containing the ballot papers for the flag referendum, I wasn’t sure which way I was going to vote.I surprised myself by seriously considering giving my tick to the status quo, despite being in favour of change.
That might seem perverse, but I reasoned that if we’re going to have a new flag, it should be one that the country is prepared to unite behind.Clearly, that’s not going to happen. The flag debate has uncorked a lot of anger and resentment. I don’t think anyone (least of all John Key) expected it to be so inflamed.
Much of that anger has little to do with flags. Even so, it can’t be ignored.A flag is supposed to be a symbol of national unity. It would be a bad start if a large segment of the population hated the new ensign and deeply resented having it imposed on them.
I thought that perhaps the best option in the circumstances was to accept that the flag issue had been irreversibly contaminated by politics, and to buy time by voting against change.I reasoned that once the heat had subsided – which would probably mean once Key has moved on, since much of the opposition to the new flag is about him – we could revisit the issue.
Perhaps we could then have a calmer discussion. We might also be able to draw on the lessons of the past few months by coming up with a fresh range of alternative designs.That was another factor that made me hesitate before I cast my vote. In last year’s referendum, I favoured Kyle Lockwood’s red, white and blue design.
Most New Zealanders who supported change did the same, but democracy can yield imperfect results. The design that voters ranked as their favourite in the referendum finished second, by a hair’s breadth, once votes for all the other options were taken into account.So we ended up with what I and many others regarded as a second-best option. Lockwood’s red, white and black design was not one that I could feel wholly enthusiastic about.
That was the thinking, then, behind my hesitation over which way to vote. But in the end, I came back to my original position in favour of change.Why? Principally, because I believe the present flag is an anachronism dating from a time when we were content to see ourselves as a distant appendage of a faded colonial power.
It’s one thing to value our historic ties to Britain, but quite another to be defined by them in the 21st century. The Union Jack represents a past that has become largely irrelevant.We surely should feel sufficiently mature as a country to have our own distinct, instantly identifiable flag – one that’s in no danger of being confused with that of Australia.
There will never be 100 per cent agreement on what that flag should look like. But as the expatriate New Zealand entrepreneur Claudia Batten points out in the latest Listener, symbols, once entrenched, acquire a power of their own.Not all Canadians wanted a change of flag in 1964, still less the maple leaf, but they grew to embrace it once it was adopted. There’s an important lesson there.
And another thing. People sneer at the Lockwood design as resembling a tea-towel or a corporate logo, but you could say the same – and worse – about many nation flags. In any case, I have yet to discover what mystical quality distinguishes a flag from a logo.The truth, I suspect, is that many of those who criticise it on aesthetic grounds have other reasons for resisting change. Aesthetic objections often serve as a smokescreen for political emotions.
Here we get to the core of the hysteria – not too strong a word – over the flag.I accept that many people oppose change for perfectly legitimate reasons: tradition, for example, and loyalty to New Zealand’s British links. But unquestionably, the debate has been distorted by extraneous factors.
For many voters on the left, the referendum is seen as an opportunity to strike at Key. That factor contaminated the debate from day one.A recent One News Colmar Brunton poll gave a clue to the extent to which the debate has been politicised. Its most striking finding was that 76 per cent of Labour voters were in the “no” camp.
Given that Labour is historically the party of change, it was telling that on this issue its supporters appear to have discovered a hitherto unsuspected streak of conservatism. Perhaps they were taking their cue from the party’s leadership, whose position on the issue has been ambivalent, if not downright contradictory.Having proposed a change of flag in its 2014 election policy, Labour couldn’t bring itself to support the proposal when Key picked it up, and instead grizzled endlessly about the process.
One reason I finally decided to vote for change, in fact, is that I resent the way political interests hijacked what should have been a reasoned, informed debate. I don’t want to give the hijackers the satisfaction of an overwhelming victory.And while I’m almost certain to be on the losing side this time around, I’m confident that those who vote for change will ultimately be shown to have been on the right side of history.