Odd alignments in the flag debate


Two years ago I welcomed John Key’s promise to hold a flag referendum. At last we could get rid of the Union Jack from our flag and have one that didn’t look like Australia’s. Many on the left had long argued for a flag change and now we had some significant support from the right.

Now it seems that many leftists will be joining the Anglophiles in voting to keep our present colonial flag. Let’s look at the reasons they give for changing their stance and the counter-arguments.


The referendum is a waste of taxpayers’ money

. That is essentially an argument for never having a referendum, because it will always cost money. However, I do accept that some of the early expenditure – to find out about our “values” – was unnecessary.


Changing the flag isn’t a priority

. Obviously, combating the TPPA or dealing with the housing crisis are more urgent issues, but it is not a zero sum game. Changing the flag is about us developing a greater sense of nationhood, which has progressive ramifications across other political issues. The Union Jack in our flag symbolises a neo-colonial mentality which is still present, even if the imperial power we now tip our hat to is usually the United States. A greater sense of independence would mean we’d be less trusting of America over the TPPA or New Zealand’s participation in America’s wars.  Be careful about using the “it isn’t a priority” argument.  It’s regularly used by politicians to avoid dealing with controversial issues: like marijuana law reform, assisted dying legislation and improving the abortion laws.


Changing the flag is a diversion

. I find that argument a bit patronising to New Zealanders. We are grown up enough to engage with the flag issue, or not, as we wish. We are only diverted to the extent we want to be diverted. And there are some important underlying political issues in the flag debate, as I have explained above.


Who cares about the flag anyhow? Isn’t flag-waving a reactionary nationalist exercise?

I have considerable sympathy for that stance, particularly when you see how patriotism and flag-waving is used by the political right in America, Britain, Australia, France, etc. But if we are going to wave a flag at to wave at international sports events, etc., I prefer it wasn’t our present colonial flag.


It’s John Key’s flag.

John Key was still a money-trader when Kyle Lockwood designed the flag back in 2001. Before John Key got involved there were many people (including myself) campaigning for a flag change – many of whom liked the Lockwood design. It won flag design competitions.


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 process to select an alternative flag was just so bad.

True, the selection committee was weak on design expertise. It should have done some development work on the best, or most popular, designs. Also, the process of selecting the final four designs for the initial referendum was clearly flawed. Two of the final four designs (the black and white koru and fern ones) were duds. Better and more popular designs, like the modified Hundertwasser koru or Otis Frizzell’s koru and stars, could have been in the final four.


We can have another go at changing the flag at a future time (perhaps when John Key has gone)

. The truth is that you’ve got to seize chances to bring about progressive change as they arise. Really, which party is going to start another referendum process any time soon? Labour??


The campaign for the fern flag is a John Key, National Party, business leaders and elite sportspeople campaign.

To me the first rule of politics is that you judge an issue on whether it is progressive or not, rather than who is supporting it. It is good if some on the right support a progressive issue. National Party supporters like Dan Carter might have been more in the media, but the Change the New Zealand Flag campaign also includes a lot of people not aligned to National, like Roger Hall and Oscar Knightly. International sportspeople like Silver Fern Maria Tutaia have good reasons to support a flag change, particularly when the Aussie and NZ flags get mixed up at international events. And we shouldn’t be against business people wanting a more distinctive New Zealand branding.


A defeat for the fern flag will be a defeat for John Key

. I’m afraid the opposite is true. Of course, John Key has too closely identified himself with the fern flag design. But if people who want a flag change for good and genuine reasons see Labour and the left responsible for keeping the colonial flag then the only political victor, unfortunately, will be John Key and his National Party.