The Flag Process – Do You Feel Duped Yet?

Gareth MorganTreaty

The public has won a victory of sorts by finally getting genuine choice into the first flag referendum. However, with such a tight timeframe and by stacking the deck so obscenely with fern variants, it is unlikely that Red Peak or the “Hypnoflag” koru entry, have a hope of winning.

How the vote works

The reason is that the ballot is not of the First Past the Post variety but rather of the Preferential Voting type where voters rank their preferences. A first past the post system would certainly favour Red Peak or the Hypnoflag, with the fern-ophile vote being split across 3 choices.

But with Preferential Voting, a design needs to get over 50% of the votes to win. If that doesn’t happen based on everyone’s top preferences, then the lowest ranking flag drops out and those votes get given to whoever the voter ranked as their second preference, and so on until one flag gets 50% of the votes. Newsworthy explained the PV system well, although as NBR pointed out their scenario of Red Peak winning looks most unlikely because fern voters will more likely rank other fern designs as their 2nd and 3rd preferences.

Stacking the Deck

By serving up 3 ferns and an irrelevancy as its preferred four, the Flag Consideration Panel clearly had a predetermination to force the public to choose a fern. It knows the nature of the voting regime and so they must have known by stacking the choices with ferns it would be nigh on impossible for anything but a fern to win. This was no doubt one factor in the public backlash that saw Red Peak added to the referendum ballot.

But one of the puzzles has been why Mr Key didn’t just dump one or two of the ferns and enable some real choice in the first ballot, particularly when the two Kyle Lockwood designs are simply colour variations on a theme. The reason of course is he’s a fern fan so he doesn’t really want any other design to come through. If he gives other options a fair chance then there will suddenly be a real possibility that a fern doesn’t win. This was never the game plan and hence his addition of a fifth choice rather than removing a fern. That decision is a hollow acknowledgement of the public’s pique – the ferns still dominate and one is virtually certain to win under this preferential voting regime.

Squeezing the Timeframes

Dissenters will say that if Red Peak is so great, it would stand on its own merit and get 50% of the vote. The fact is that the silver fern is a comfortable symbol and has been around for a long time – people are used to it so it will be the default choice – by those who haven’t had the opportunity to come to grips with the concepts of flag design. Unlike the Kyle Lockwood variants, Red Peak is a properly designed flag, but as a new design it will take the public some time to get used to it.

The public could educate themselves by looking at the advice that the Flag Consideration Panel got from designers (and promptly ignored), or using the online tool on the flag test site to see how the flags fly in practice. But realistically the majority won’t. The referendum timing should ideally have left more space and opportunity for the public to acclimatize to the options, particularly new ideas like Red Peak. For example Parliament could fly the five options on the poles outside so that the public can see how they fare in the wonderful Wellington spring.

Instead we have a rushed referendum timeframe, apparently to allow plenty of time before the next election. We should have learned from the mistakes of the South Africans when they changed their flag. They tried a public process similar to ours, but when that failed they turned to a flag designer to do the job, and the rest is history. Instead of learning those lessons, good process has been pushed aside to serve the legacy of the Prime Minister. The reality of this cramped timeframe is that the public will defer to the option that they know – a fern commandeers 60% of the referendum choices. The other 2 options only get 20% of the voting space each.

Is the whole thing a foregone conclusion?

The cramped timeframe and stacked referendum options make Mr Key’s latest faux gesture of contrition to the angry public even more cynical. Apparently he has said that if it comes down to Red Peak versus the current flag, he’ll vote Red Peak. This possibility is nigh on impossible, but there is no harm in him further ingratiating himself to the disaffected public that is so angry with the whole process. By saying should the circumstances arise he’ll back Red Peak, he’s covering his butt. There’s no chance of that really so no downside really for him sidling up to the disaffected who can see only to well that the process has screwed everyone over.

It is time for one or more individual members of the Flag Consideration Panel to come out of hiding and ‘fess up to why they deliberately stacked the ballot in favour of the fern. Were they just asleep at the wheel, or did they really think that since it was the PM’s party and he said he wanted a fern, that the dutiful thing to do was make sure he got a fern? And why did the Government set this thing up with such cramped timeframes? In doing so they have comprehensively ruined the democratic process and are sending us into a $26m exercise where the only winner – under this voting regime – will still be a fern.

You have to ask – why are we buggering around with the first ballot at all?

The Flag Process – Do You Feel Duped Yet? 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.