The People's Flag: For the duration of the Prime Minister’s vainglorious change-the-flag project, the New Zealand Ensign has stood for the right of the people – and not a single individual – to determine their nation’s destiny. It was Democracy’s flag that we voted to keep.
WHEN THE NEWS came through that the present New Zealand flag had defeated Kyle Lockwood’s silver fern I was at the pub. One of my companions suggested that we share the referendum result with the other patrons. Having by far the loudest voice, I strode to the bar and announced that the present New Zealand flag had received 57 percent of the votes cast to the Silver Fern’s 43 percent. The room erupted with whoops and cheers and just about everyone in the pub joined in the applause.
That spontaneous ovation seemed to me to have very little to do with the respective merits of the Union Jack versus the Silver Fern. Indeed, it is highly likely that at least a third of the people seated in that bar had voted for change.
Why, then, did so many of my fellow patrons clap and cheer?
The answer is simple: they were cheering the personal discomfiture and political humiliation of the Prime Minister.
John Key had made the flag referendum a test of his supporters’ loyalty: of their willingness to follow his every wish – no matter how fundamentally it contradicted their own. Astonishingly, they came within 7 percentage points of passing their leader’s test. Over the last ten days of voting, the gap between the supporters of the present flag and Lockwood’s alternative narrowed dramatically – startling evidence of the Prime Minister’s influence over his conservative base. That the six electorates in which the Silver Fern secured a narrow majority over the Union Jack were all true-blue National seats is certainly no accident.
That they were being asked to participate in some sort of weird affirmation ritual did not escape the attention of the rest of the population – and they resented it bitterly. That resentment only increased as the flag-changing process unfolded. I was reminded of the child’s card-trick in which the “magician” appears to be giving his “mark” a series of choices, while actually contriving to sequentially eliminate all but the chosen card from contention.
What infuriated the population even more was Key’s armour-plated insouciance. He clearly believed that his referendum card-trick would work on just enough people to secure him the affirmation he was seeking. All it communicated to those not yet under the Prime Minister’s spell, however, was how thoroughly manipulable he believed the electorate to be.
The alternative flag “finalists” only added insult to injury. With three of the four designs featuring a silver fern, the cynics’ view, that the judging panel knew exactly what the Prime Minister wanted and was determined to give it to him, gained widespread currency.
What the panel could not give him, however, was the option Key’s loyalists were most eager to vote for: the “All Blacks Flag”. Intellectual property considerations had conspired to keep Key’s first choice for an alternative New Zealand flag off the ballot. The NZRFU was simply unwilling to surrender its brand. If it had, that 7 point gap separating the status quo from change would, almost certainly, have been narrower.
For those not in thrall to “Brand Key”, however, the choice was clear. If you were determined to deny the Prime Minister plebiscitary proof of his own invincibility, you simply had to vote for the status quo.
Only the most indefatigable leftists, like the former Green MP, Keith Locke, were willing to set aside Key’s all-too-obvious agenda and vote to get rid of the most enduring symbol of New Zealand’s colonial heritage. (The flag Irish nationalists still refer to as the “butcher’s apron”.)
Most supporters of the “Government-in-Waiting”: Labour, Greens, NZ First; were, however, willing to swallow their socialist, republican and nationalist principles and vote for the “Good Old Flag”.
Challenged by their outraged comrades, many offered the excuse of the proposed alternative’s design inadequacies. “If we’d had something better than a glorified tea-towel on offer” they protested, “we’d have voted for it.”
But would we? To fly, a flag has to stand for something. No matter how well-designed, the flag worn so ostentatiously on Key’s lapel would still have stood, in the minds of his opponents, for the Prime Minister’s determination to demonstrate that, even on a matter as fundamental to the nation’s identity as its flag, his would be the will that prevailed.
That was the aspiration so many National supporters (regardless of their personal preference for the status quo) were willing to satisfy by voting for their leader’s choice. A genuinely frightening demonstration of political fealty.
More reassuring, however, were the whoops and cheers that echoed around the pub as I announced the referendum result. For the duration of the Prime Minister’s pet project, the New Zealand Ensign has stood for the right of the people – and not a single individual – to determine their nation’s destiny.
It was Democracy’s flag that we voted to keep.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 March 2016.