Mangled flag process has lost the public

Gareth MorganTreaty

The latest poll on the flag indicates a significant rise in the numbers opposed to change. This is the first poll since the final four were chosen and that event has had a significant impact on the public’s perception as to what this campaign is all about.

When the flag change campaign was first announced the number were 88 per cent against change. As the public discussion and debate progressed over subsequent months (mainly online) that resistance fell dramatically and just prior to the announcement of the final four, to down as low as just above 50 per cent.

But the failure of the Flag Consideration Panel to present any real choice to the public, coupled with the intensified campaign by the prime minister to push the silver fern down the throats of the public, has resulted in public kickback. In short a whole new group of voters have now decided they would rather not change than be forced to pick between one of John Key’s favourites.

It is a condemnation of the cynicism of the $26m spend of the public’s money to finance a Key political initiative. Many believe that third-term governments become intensely cynical and arrogant, and this sequence of events certainly doesn’t dispel those expectations.

Rodney Hide made some perceptive observations about the voting public in a weekend newspaper column. He observed that elections are won or lost by the middle voter in New Zealand, who largely is indifferent to any policy arguments. That voter, Hide observed, is mainly hostile to change (as the 88 per cent against change from the initial flag polls confirmed).

The conclusion then for policymakers is to by and large do your polling first, and just follow the polls. This, Hide posits, is why Key is so successful – by and large he promotes no change.

But there are exceptions. On the refugee issue, the public got restless. The Key Government did its polls and changed the policy according to the public’s wishes.

On the flag issue, both main political parties have stated in the past that its time for a change; a defaced British naval ensign is hardly in keeping with anything but a pretence that New Zealand is a modern, self-confident and independent nation. In addition Key is a great fan of the United States and there patriotism rules supreme.

So the idea of a political triumph from updating the flag, via the most democratic process that could be conceived, was born. The Flag Consideration Panel would ensure the process was apolitical and reflected the public’s preference for (a) an alternative and (b) whether change was in fact desired.

It fell apart however when the panel came up with only four variants on a fern or parts of a fern. Having preached the properties a national flag should have, having implored New Zealanders to express what we actually stand for, in the end all the panel could produce was three variants of the flag the prime minister favoured, plus one that is so disliked and meaningless that no competition was assured.

At the same time the prime minister expressed how “wonderful” the options were and since then has embarked on an intensive campaign to promote the fern-based flags. Every day, in every speech, he just can’t resist telling his audience how great it is.

The public disagree. First, the $26m was always seen as an extravagant way to go about the process. The panel’s national tour by van was an unmitigated and high profile waste of money. The discussion of the real issues at stake was taken up online by several sites, none of which was the panel’s site – because it was abundantly clear the panel was not interested in engaging. Theirs was no more than one of those “Claytons-style” consultations that government does when it just wants to go through the motions, but really has a predetermined outcome in mind.

So the public is rightfully upset and what we see now, evidenced by the latest poll, is that the “progressives” on this issue, who demand real choice and have called for Red Peak to represent that choice, have thrown their lot in with the “regressives” and the “middle” to oppose any change. The rationale is simple – the process will be done again in a few years without the cynicism of Key to contaminate it.

We are headed to a $26m folly.

Mangled flag process has lost the public was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.