Better to wait than botch it

5:50 pm on 15 September 2015

OPINION: It's not every day ACT calls for a cuppa, but on the flag debacle John Key would be wise to listen to his junior coalition partner David Seymour.

10 year old Sam Cooper, from Ngaio Primary School, likes the koru.

On 1 September, the Flag Consideration Panel announced these four flags as the finalists - and not everybody was happy. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

If the process goes ahead based on the current plan, polling by Australasia's top research company, UMR, suggests one of the Lockwood designs will be selected but then be defeated by the status quo.

This will be a grave embarrassment for the Prime Minister and - much worse - a lost opportunity for New Zealand.

Changing the flag is a process that requires absolute political legitimacy. Partly because the proposal for change is so closely tied to the Prime Minister personally, and partly because Labour suffers from such an advanced case of Key Derangement Syndrome that it opted for sabotage in response, the current process lacks that necessary legitimacy.

It should be put on hold for the summer in the way Mr Seymour - a supporter of Red Peak - has advocated.

I write as someone who advocated a change of flag - to a black flag with a silver fern - after the 2011 Rugby World Cup. I had been impressed by how first Tongan New Zealanders and then other New Zealanders with connections to neighbouring countries had so passionately begun flying their flags at the start of the tournament. Belatedly, New Zealanders supporting the All Blacks began flying a flag - the black flag with the silver fern. The blue ensign with the Union Jack was scarcely seen.

All Blacks RWC Jersey

The All Blacks' jersey for the 2015 Rugby World Cup - including, naturally, a silver fern. Photo: Photosport

To me, the silver fern is not an All Black logo, and it offends me when people say it is or decry it as "corporate". That is to get things the wrong way round.

To me, the fern is the national symbol, which the All Blacks, pretty much every other national sports team and many other organisations, including the New Zealand Labour Party, use for that reason. It is the fern which appears on the New Zealand tombstones in the Commonwealth war graves I have visited in Monte Cassino and El Alamein.

That New Zealanders had used the occasion of the Rugby World Cup to embrace the black flag so fervently seemed to me to have been the population making a de facto change. I wondered how long it would take the politicians to catch up. Apparently, the polls were saying something similar. John Key soon began discussing the idea in public.

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Prime Minister John Key at one of his regular news conferences - flanked by the existing flag. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Both National and Labour went into the last election campaign promising the opportunity for change. The pretext for the subsequent disagreement was around the order of the referendum questions. National thought an alternative should be selected first, and then put up against the status quo. Labour thought the status quo should first go up against a question mark, followed by a process to select an alternative.

I think National was right, but that makes no difference. On this point, hopes for bipartisan consensus were lost - but Labour's current attitude means, had it not been this issue, it would have been another.

Red Peak NZ Flag.

A campaign for a fifth flag design - Red Peak - has gained traction since 1 September. Photo: Facebook / Red Peak NZ Flag

As a prime ministerial election promise, the flag change process nevertheless had to go ahead.

Perhaps stung by opposition attacks it was a waste of money, the government settled on a budget of just $25.7 million over two years, of which most would be swallowed up by the cost of the postal referendums - budgeting just $4 million over two years for engaging the public, less than the $7 million originally indicated.

This spend continues to be controversial but, to put it in context, The Warehouse spends over $70 million annually on advertising. As the owner of a PR company, I would say this, wouldn't I, but $4 million over two years - $2 million a year - is simply not enough to properly engage the public on any issue, let alone one as sensitive as changing the flag.

What's more, there are doubts about how well it was spent, with much seemingly devoted to an old-fashioned roadshow of public meetings which, inevitably, hardly anyone attended. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet boasts the flag project "will continue to minimise costs wherever possible".

Save it until after summer

Prompted to some degree by not wanting to have the same colour flag as Daesh - the medieval barbarians who call themselves Islamic State - I have now moved on from wanting a strictly black flag and now favour the blue and black Lockwood design.

The lack of public interest in the engagement process means the four options recommended by the panel have suffered criticism, much of it unfair.

There is some growing support for the Red Peak design, which flunked in the UMR polling, fuelled by John Key-haters but also those who genuinely like it. With time, who knows, it may grow on me.

Epsom electorate MP David Seymour

ACT MP David Seymour has suggested delaying the first flag referendum until after Christmas. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Mr Key is the most brilliant political tactician in a generation and yesterday managed to turn the tables on Labour over the question of whether Red Peak should be added to the ballot paper.

Labour now says Mr Key should just add it himself - an appalling suggestion. If Mr Key is to personally decide what flags go on the ballot, I would like him to add the plain black flag I initially liked. After all, it will get significant public support over the next seven weeks.

But this is all hopeless. The flag that is chosen to run against the status quo must be one that is seen as legitimate if it is to win - and even more so if it does win.

The paths to the Canadian maple leaf flag and multicolour South African flag took unexpected turns, and so has this one. Mr Key should show the flexibility he has on so many other issues and respond to events.

Mr Seymour's idea of giving New Zealanders the summer to think about it and argue over it - hopefully more civilly than has been evident over recent weeks - is one Mr Key should grab, to re-launch the process in the New Year, hopefully with a more constructive attitude from Labour. He'll need to speak to Bill English about a budget for public engagement that is more of Warehouse proportions than what has been spent so far.

To the extent Mr Key does want this to be his legacy, he doesn't have much time to fix things - but there is no doubt he had the fleet-footedness to do so.

Matthew Hooton is a political commentator from the right, and also owns a PR company. He discusses politics on Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan every Monday, alongside former Labour Party president Mike Williams.

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