We New Zealanders are independent and we are proud of it. We go against the tide, we raise our voices to injustice, and we radically punch above our small weight. We are a nation of great thinkers and boundary-pushing doers, yelling to and at the rest of the world from our three small islands in the South Pacific.
We are isolated. We are resourceful. And we are young. We are the children of David Lange, who independently and much to the annoyance of Mother Britain, France and the United States stood for the values of peace and environmental protection. We are the children of those who protested the Springbok tour and stood against apartheid when the establishment told us to keep our mouths shut. We are the children of Whina Cooper and Kate Sheppard; no-nonsense women who stood against the status quo and demanded fairness and equal treatment.
So, with all that considered, why aren’t we marching down to the post office this flag referendum singing “hit the road jack!” with our ticks inside the boxes of a new, more representative design?
Great question. And it’s a question which one man in particular, Prime Minister John Key, must be mulling over in his leafy suburban mansion as his Lockwood fern design is almost certainly doomed to be put to the sword. After all, all opinion polls, dating right back to the 1990s under the Bolger-Shipley years when the mood for republicanism had reached its peak, have shown a consistent desire to change the flag with the most recent poll before the referendum process showing a 62 to 38 margin in favour of change.
Why the flag referendum failed:
Profound lack of groundswell.
The whole flag debate came back and bit us on the backside when we were all discussing the issues of the 2014 election. If you can remember, much of that, if we focus on policy discussion, was centred around the housing crisis. But also edging into discussion was the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), mass surveillance questions, ministerial corruption and ‘dirty politics’. ‘Gee, c’mon you National Party hard-hat spin doctors – we need something to get people talking – and make sure it’s positive!’ cried the call from the Prime Minister’s office. And the baby of that appears to be the re-opening of the flag debate.
The most crucial thing missed by Key and his spin-doctors when designing the perimeters for the debate was the far wider debate of our national identity, and the often quoted ‘our place in the world’. Corny? Yes. But important.
We have missed a prime opportunity to discuss the future of our country and our identity. Many experts are now saying, albeit a bit lately, that the flag discussion should have accompanied or come after a serious analysis on the future of New Zealand’s place in the commonwealth. A discussion on a New Zealand republic. And of course John Key’s apparently passionate advocacy for change has confused many. Set your mind back seven years and remember this is the same Prime Minister who bizarrely brought back knights and dames, the prime symbol of our colonial past and constantly reminded us of his allegiance to the Queen. The Prime Minister, hereby, totally confused the electorate with his intentions to take us away from Britain, but at the same time send us back to our toots. He is yet to explain that.
Such a discussion on our future with the monarchy would have created the groundswell Key so needed to push through a change in the flag. After all, in the examples of other world nations flag change has always followed massive social, political and economic upheaval. Consider these examples: France. South Afrtica. Russia.
Australia has once again started the discussion on becoming a republic with Opposition leader Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull both passionate republicans. All but one state Premier signed an open letter endorsing a republic; that’s conservatives and liberals. As a result, there has been a recent upswing in support for changing the Australian flag, something hardly anyone ever thought possible. That’s because Australia is doing it the right way, and opening up dialogue on the future of their nation first.
The heavy politicisation of politically neutral debate.
Why on earth Key thought it was a great idea to make himself the unofficial spokesperson for his flag change brainwave remains to be seen. If he wanted to turn his natural electoral enemies against him; youth, Labour voters and Maori, then of course it then makes sense to align himself with one side of the debate. Indeed, the most recent Colmar Brunton poll found Labour voters oppose the flag change in droves (about 75%), youth by an almost equal amount with the most passionately opposed being teenagers, and Maori in opposition enthusiastically (85%). These are three demographics Key had banked on winning. Labour, with its more liberal and urban voter base seems a natural pro-change demographic. Youth, who hold a perhaps naive understanding of the flag’s importance to the elderly and to war veterans, should certainly have opted for Lockwood. And Maori, who are snubbed on the current flag, would have undoubtedly been a target market for the pro-change camp.
How admirable it would have been to see John Key out of the debate and the process made politically neutral. But it was his baby, and he couldn’t resist it holding onto wherever it went. The crisis meeting organised by Maggie Barry in the dying weeks of the campaign was a sign of panic, and it was clear an idea which appeared out of the meeting was to kick Key to the sidelines in a last-ditch attempt to reach Labour voters, youth and Maori. But the crisis meeting’s obvious plans to rope in Richie McCaw and ‘influential, prominent’ New Zealanders was another headache, and as a result the Lockwood flag was punished in the polls, rather than picking up momentum.
Why I’m voting to keep.
1. Let’s be true.
Who are we, New Zealand? Well, according to polling we are bloody loyalist monarchists who’d all fancy tea and cake with William and Kate. Great! Why pretend to be anything else? As TV3 comedian Guy Williams put it, wanting to change the flag whilst still having the Queen as our head of state is just daft. It’s like going to your work at McDonalds and refusing to put on your McDonalds uniform. All elected members to parliament recite the line “I will be faithful and bare true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second…” blah blah blah. That true allegiance, if we are to be loyal little monarchists, can’t just include being loyal to knights and dames system and visiting the Queen.
When we are all grown up, and ready to cut ties to our Motherland, to whom we still remain overwhelmingly loyal, let’s have the discussion again. Then we can have a flag that means something and signifies an important moment in our history. At the birth of a new nation, and the dawn of something new, there is no doubt New Zealand will be ready to stand proudly beneath a new flag for a new New Zealand. But for now, love it or hate it, we love Liz. I’d love to see us become a republic one day but I understand the close and heart-felt connections many New Zealanders, mainly older Kiwis, hold to the monarchy – and I respect it. Majority rules, the republic has to wait. And therefore so must the flag.
2. We don’t deserve it.
What is the criteria for having a new flag for a new nation? Is it one that’s all-grown up and standing on its own to feet? If that’s so, sorry New Zealand. You don’t deserve a new flag. I’m pro-current flag, for now, but this debate has been bloody painful and bloody disheartening. And I target mainly pro-current flag voters here. The humiliation fern-fliers have felt in simply expressing their opinions has been unreal. Above all, it proves we aren’t ready or mature enough to have this talk.
So why else don’t we deserve it? Supposedly, according to the liberal republican, Melbourne-dwelling Kyle Lockwood, the fern represents New Zealand’s many wonderfully united cultures, all working together towards a prosperous and inclusive future.
Sorry New Zealand, once again you don’t deserve that. We, as a nation, have so much work to do on our race relations and many wounds to heal before we say to the world New Zealand is a place where all cultures and races can amalgamate and work together, peacefully, free of hatred, discrimination and bigotry. Perhaps this is why Maori oppose the flag change so passionately, as there is this belief from white middle-class New Zealand that if we rid the union jack there will be a wonderful change in race relations and those working class Maori folk who live on the other side of town will be far happier. Wrong again. Maori (who, by the way, will quite rightly opt to fly their Tino Rangatiratanga sovereign flag regardless) are hungry for solutions, not new designs. They’re angry that their children are disproportionately growing up hungry, cold and poorly educated. They’re angry that their children are more likely than Pakeha or Asian children to go to prison, or end up living on the streets. All complications which have arrived to us as a disturbing and profound reality of colonialism and deeply-rooted historical racial clashes.
Once we have healed these wounds and overcome these injustices, lets perhaps then start to talk ourselves up as a place where all races can prosper equally. Because I’ll tell you one fact; it sure as hell ain’t right now.
Solutions before cover-ups.
3. Honour and respect.
Like it or not, this is the flag of our nation’s past. It’s our heritage. It’s the flag our freedom fighters had flown above them in times of strife, it was the flag that their family members waved when they came home, and its the flag that flies above the many memorials across our country in their memory. I’m a millennial, the flag means something to me, but it doesn’t mean a lot to me. It will probably never mean as much to me as our World War Two veterans, who through the Returned Services Association (RSA) are loudly voicing their intense opposition to change. Indeed, at least one former member of the Maori battalion has confirmed he’ll boycott Anzac Day commemorations if the fern flag is flown there at all. I am deeply uncomfortable with any flag, besides the current flag, flying above our war memorials. It’s just disrespectful. The very reason we are able to vote in this referendum, in a comparatively clean democracy, is in fact an argument in favour for keeping our flag – in their name. Our flag has a proud history, with every New Zealander alive today having been born beneath it. And every New Zealander owes it to those veterans.
And it’s not just about those who have defended our country and our flag. The current flag doesn’t just represent an ‘imperial dream’, from a time when Britain ruled the world and through the might of its military had the world in chains. It represents our heritage, the many English, Scottish and Irish settlers who gave today’s New Zealand its birth. The men and women who through blood, sweat and tears built this country from the bush, rock and rivers into a country suitable for prospering people. The flag is also representative of our language, of which 95% of us speak at home. Our religion, which half of us still practice. Our parliamentary and constitutional practices, which are built and modeled on Britain. Heritage doesn’t have an expiry date, and some things are meant to be ‘old’ and ‘outdated’ because it reminds us of where we come from, and who and what is part of our story as a nation.
When considering our flag, it’s so integral we consider honour. A flag is not a marketing mechanism that we can sell to the world, as opposed to what John Key, with his strong trading background, would have us believe. A flag is all about honour. I can honour the current flag because it means something and is there for a reason. I would find it extraordinarily difficult to honour a flag that emerged for no reason other than a Prime Minister’s lack of legacy, and, more importantly, emerged without a previous movement of national upheaval and radical social change.
4. The process and Key’s legacy.
It’s one of the weaker arguments against the flag which I would somewhat discourage, but nevertheless I can’t deny its a played a part in my decision making. John Key, at some point in his second term, quickly realised he was becoming one of New Zealand’s longest serving Prime Ministers and had no legacy. Seriously, name something you’ll remember him for? The selfie Prime Minister? The ponytail-puller? Yeah, he needed something more than that. And you hardly need me to remind you what a calamity the process was. The obvious set-up to have the Lockwood fern elected, the $26 million wasted, and the unnecessary two referendums which ultimately put more and more people off changing the flag.
5. The alternative is bloody ghastly.
I mean look at it. Seriously. What the hell is that?!
Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ on a bike. Jesus Christ on a bike hurtling off a cliff. I will be so glad to see the back of this debate. What a divisive, nasty, distracting, unnecessary, childish, stupid, uncalled for, and breathtakingly half-baked debate. So, whilst I’ve voted to keep our flag, I encourage you to not allow yourself to be divided and pitted against your fellow Kiwis who support change. That’s not who we are, and its not what we are about. Let’s leave this thing behind us and learn from it.