OPINION: Flag 'debate' always lacked substance

10:14 am on 26 March 2016

Of all the inanities uttered during the flag-change debate, the most fatuous was surely that it was "a shame the process had become politicised".

It became a default apologia for politicians and political commentators, creatures seemingly deaf to irony, who generally blundered on to defile the very neutrality they pretended to hold sacred.

How exactly would a campaign to change the emblem of a sovereign nation, promoted by a popular prime minister and requiring considerable public expenditure and electoral mobilisation, not be political?

You can argue that a flag is purely symbolic or emblematic, but so too is a lot of politics. It's tribal, and it's often more about grand gestures than polite discussions.

A country's flag is just one big tribal gesture flapping in the breeze. Changing it was always going to be inherently political.

And so it turned out, with MPs sticking largely to their party lines. Pathetically predictable as that was, it shouldn't have surprised anyone.

The silver fern flag had become what flags are prone to be - a symbol. Alas for John Key, who disingenuously expressed disappointment at the "politicisation" of the process, it had become a symbol of him.

Wearing it on his lapel was no doubt justified on the grounds that lapels should be kept out of politics.

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Voters themselves were not so easily compartmentalized; the numbers against change did not conveniently mirror current political polling - a political win on that scale would be a landslide, after all.

The resounding rejection of the alternative flag cannot be construed as a simple rejection of Mr Key - more likely, a large number of his supporters simply haven't drunk as much of the Kool-Aid as the bulk of his parliamentary colleagues, and were still capable of independent thought.

So Mr Key can probably console himself in the knowledge that he won't be personally held to account. Whether he chooses to learn something from it, though, is moot.

If anything, the process was not nearly political enough. Mr Key's real failure was not that he didn't pick a winner, but that he failed to take his people with him.

Changing a flag is one of those moments that call for statesmanship. It demands an ability to build bi-partisan consensus, and to articulate a vision that will inspire and motivate the citizenry to think deeply about national identity and nationhood.

Watch John Key address the nation after Thursday's referendum result.

Strip away all the little failures - the dodgy process, the wrong-headed design philosophy, the shoddy last-minute celebrity interventions - and what we're left with is a much larger failure: of nerve.

If Mr Key had understood this was more than a corporate re-branding exercise, if he'd grasped that you can't change a symbol without addressing the substance, he might have won the day.

Because there was and is a clear appetite for change. Take those old republicans and young dreamers who voted for the current flag through gritted teeth and add their votes to the other side, and you'd have a real contest.

But to do that is going to take a politician with more bottle for the big conversation. New Zealanders voted very sensibly to wait for the day one comes along.

* Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011.