It’s not easy to interpret the results of the first round of the flag referendum.
For example, 10% voted informal, but they could have done so for several reasons. Perhaps none of the five flag options available took their fancy? Or perhaps they were strong supporters of the present NZ flag and didn’t brook any alternative? Or perhaps they were against the referendum itself because they saw it as a John Key “vanity project” or a “distraction”? Or perhaps they didn’t like the amount of money spent on it? Or perhaps they thought there are more important issues?
Yet 43.5% of registered voters ticked one of the five flag options, compared with 44.5 ticking one of the two options in the 2013 asset sales referendum. These days that level of engagement is quite good for a postal ballot.
The turnout might have been even higher if the committee choosing the flag designs had done a better job. Of the original four designs chosen for the ballot only the two Kyle Lockwood fern/Southern Cross designs had any genuine popularity. Few voters plumped for the two also-rans, the black and white fern design (5.6%) or the black and white koru (3.85%). I have excluded informal votes when calculating the percentages for these two flags.
The Red Peak design (added as a result of public pressure) had considerably more support than either of the two also-rans, but it was well behind the two Kyle Lockwood designs. It’s puzzling that the flag committee didn’t include what were clearly more popular designs – such as the Otis Frizzell koru or the modified Hundertwasser flag, both of which were among the 40 on the long-list. The committee also failed to draw on the enough flag design expertise to develop and refine the options.
That being said, we now have a clear choice between a reasonably presentable Kyle Lockwood design and an out-of-date colonial flag, with its Union Jack in the corner and looking too much like Australia’s.
I respect those who have a sentimental attachment to the present flag and wish to keep it. But I believe that flag is hardly relevant for a modern, independent, multi-cultural Pacific nation. We are no longer an adjunct of Britain. Nor are we a smaller version of Australia – with one star less on our flag.
I know the flag issue has been a lightening rod for dissatisfaction with John Key, who has overly imprinted himself on the project. But this is not his issue. Long before John Key became Prime Minister people like myself were arguing for a flag change and such a referendum. The late Lloyd Morrison with his nzflag.com campaign laid much of the groundwork. I first saw the flag Kyle Lockwood flag (designed in 2000) on the nzflag.com site. John Key didn’t build the flag change bandwagon – he jumped on to it, as politicians are want to do.
For those who see the flag debate as a “distraction”, it’s worthwhile trying to turn it into its opposite. When arguing for a flag without a Union Jack you can educate people about the dark aspects of our colonial past such as how, under that flag, we followed Britain into the disastrous First World War and 50,000 New Zealanders were killed or wounded. Use this to educate people about how wrong it is today for John Key to send New Zealand soldiers back to the Middle East at the bidding of another great power.
By itself, a flag change is hardly the most important issue we face – as people hammer home every day on social media. But every little step we take away from our colonial past helps us deal more confidently as a nation with the big problems like inequality, poverty, war, ecological sustainability and protecting our rights.