Winston Peters ignites flag debate

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters has reignited the flag debate, two years after a national referendum rejected the idea of a new flag. The restarting of the flag debate came after he called on Australia for reasons I am not yet clear on, to change their own flag – imagine that, a(n acting) New Zealand Prime Minister telling Australia to change its flag – because New Zealand had apparently had its flag longer and the Australians had merely copied us.

I actually support changing the flag. There is however a simple reason why I refused to support the referendum in 2016 – it was too sudden for many New Zealanders and raised a bright red flag: why now? What was the then Prime Minister John Key trying to hide or divert our attention from? It just all seemed suspicious.

But also, this is the flag that thousands of New Zealanders fought and died for. This is the flag that my Grandmother’s brother Lance Corporal Eric Dennis Green died for. Whilst the wartime generation is still alive, this is not the time to change that flag.

However, the correct procedures I believe were followed for having a flag referendum. The referendum was to happen in two stages:

  1. Ask whether the public want a flag change or not – this would be a simple YES/NO referendum. It would be binding, meaning whatever outcome would have to be respected and acted on by the Government
  2. ASSUMING the answer is YES, then ask from the two most popular designs, which flag should be our new one

None of the designs in the 2015 competition, or the two that were shortlisted should New Zealand have said yes, were inspiring in the least. In fact Red Fern looked more like a corporate logo than anything else.

I have had thoughts about what a flag could look like. One idea that I have had would be the outline of a Kea (nestor notabilis), New Zealand’s cheeky and inquisitive alpine parrot whose behavioural characteristics I think nicely sum up how New Zealanders aspire to be – social, inquisitive about the world around them and perhaps a tad cheeky.

It will however have to happen at an appropriate time. The earliest such occasion that I can think of would be the death of Queen Elizabeth II, our reigning sovereign. At that point it would be appropriate to go through the full rigarmole – seeing if the people of New Zealand wish to set about overhauling the constitutional arrangements, changing the flag, and then adhering to their wishes, whatever they may be.

So, the day of a new flag is coming. It was a premature dawn on the idea in 2016 and New Zealanders knew and understood it then. But that dawn is coming – it just might be another several years.



Until next time, this is the New Zealand Flag

This is not an endorsement of the current New Zealand flag. This is simply accepting that for the time being the New Zealand people have decided that the Union Jack + 4 Stars of the Southern Cross shall be the New Zealand flag.

The time for changing the flag is coming. This was not it for  several reasons, not least key voting constituencies were not having a bar of a new flag, but also because there seemed to be something quite artificial about the manner in which it was done.

We might not know the full rationale that led Prime Minister John Key to think that there would be a good sound case for changing the flag. However, we do know that in the years and months proceeding it, there was a determined and persistently strong chorus of resistance that the Prime Minister ended up not being able to ignore. It came from all corners of society, from fellow National party members, to war vets and even to those barely old enough to vote, but old enough none the less to realize the importance attached to the flag.

Although the Prime Minister may have gotten it wrong this, as many think he did, Mr Key may have set off something larger in terms of constitutional change whose full impact might not be known for several years. This something – whatever it maybe – may end up being the true legacy of an otherwise unspectacular Prime Minister.

For me it was the links to Britannia and the acknowledgement that the wartime generation fought and died for this flag. It was an acknowledgement that under this flag, although the Silver Fern is imprinted on New Zealand graves overseas, 30,000 men and women in two world wars and a host of smaller conflicts went to war under it and did not come back under it. I cannot ignore that.

But eventually that generation will die out. And sometime between now and then, the ultimate symbol of Britannia that New Zealanders fought and died for, the Queen of England will die too. As a figurehead of the monarchy who grew in stature and saw off some of the most challenging post war issues in Britain, the Queen as much as the Union Jack in the corner of the flag was – and still is – a link back to a place that some call the Motherland or the Fatherland.

When that connection is severed – it might be tomorrow or another decade and a half – I will acknowledge the departure of the link between New Zealand and the British Empire, for the Union Jack will then be redundant. It will be a part of yesteryear, just like the old naval ensign. That time is coming, but this was not it.

So, enjoy this flag whilst it lasts because when change eventually comes, even the traditionalists are going to have a hard time stopping the tide.


The time and place when New Zealand could change its flag

The current debate over becoming a Republic and having a flag change has got me thinking. My thoughts on both at this time are well established and need no further mention. But it has also got me thinking about about an event that will happen regardless of the outcome of the current referendum: the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

There is no doubt that the Queen is a very highly regarded figure around the world. She has reigned for a period longer than most people I know have been on the face of the planet – she had been Queen for 27 years already when I was born. Queen Elizabeth II has many admirers in both Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries who see her as a figurehead of stability in very stormy times.  However, in a decade or so, Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II will pass on. At that point there will be a debate over who will succeed her as Head of State in Australia, New Zealand and several other countries. My understanding is that Prince Charles will become King as he is first in line to the throne.

Because Prince Charles is not seen by as many people as a person who they could tolerate as a Head of State in New Zealand as the current reigning Sovereign, when the current Monarch dies, peoples view points might change. This is where support for changes to New Zealand’s constitutional framework, and discussion about issues such as whether to become a Republic, what significance the Union Jack in the current flag has, whether the next Monarch appears on our currency will intensify.

I personally support changing the flag and becoming a Republic, but I do not detect the appropriate mood right now in New Zealand for such changes. This is not about whether the nation has grown up enough or not, but about the fact that New Zealanders seem to mainly agree that the time and place is not now.

In saying that, I believe New Zealand should make ready for the day when the reigning Monarch passes on. As part of that preparation, I believe legislation needs to be pushed through the House of Representatives, to ensure that there is a process to follow in determining how best to determine what New Zealanders want that can automatically kick in when the reigning Monarch passes on. Let me be very clear that this legislation is not declaring a Republic or a flag change, but to ensure that binding check on what New Zealanders think can take place with minimum of fuss, or delay. Of course if she were to have a heart attack or other problem that forces her to abdicate the throne before she dies – something that might happen tomorrow for all we know – then New Zealand might have accept a period of time whilst we determine the best path forward where Prince Charles is King of England.

In the interim, if you are eligible to vote in the current flag referendum, I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is that you do. Nor can I stress strongly enough how important it is to not desecrate your ballot papers, with text, drawings or other unnecessary stuff. Just tick the choice you want, put it in the envelope that came with the ballot paper and send it back.

In the balance: Latest poll shows a hung Parliament

Think National is cruising to a fourth term in Parliament? Have a look at this.

The most recent Colmar Brunton poll, which came out on 21 February 2016 shows a significant drop of four points for the Green Party. It showed New Zealand First potentially holding the balance of power, which puts its leader Winston Peters in the role of a potential king maker. But is the latest Colmar Brunton poll accurate? For the time being I believe it is probably a fairly accurate depiction of Parliament, though there are some major headaches on the horizon for both sides of the House:

  • The support for a new flag is still quite low and ignoring such strong sentiment from both sides of the House could be seriously damaging to Prime Minister John Key
  • How will the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement shape up? Whilst there is no doubt significant concern about what it might mean for our sovereignty as a nation, Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First need to acknowledge that there is equally significant support on the other side and review how they tackle those constituents

Failure to understand and tackle these appropriately has the potential to cause significant voter unrest, despite the election still being 18 months or more away. Concern about how the Government is dealing with the insurance issues that continue to afflict Christchurch in the post-earthquake environment, unease at the prospect of New Zealand being involved in a war it generally does not seem to want a part in and a stubbornly high unemployment rate is all very real.

I am not wholly surprised that the Greens have dropped as Labour’s tertiary education policy was a solid first effort to release meaningful policy. It targeted a section of New Zealand that is often quite sympathetic to the Green Party causes and appears to have taken them as much by surprise as it did everyone else.

Labour’s gain is in part because its Leader, Andrew Little, continues to perform solidly, though without flair and does not seem to be afflicted with internal rumblings like those that overtook his predecessors David Cunliffe and David Shearer. It is also an acknowledgement after all of this time that perhaps with its tertiary education policy, Labour can launch meaningful policy after all.

I would expect to see National and its support partners suffer if they come out in continued support for a new flag even though the public sentiment seems to be very much in favour of the current flag. Third term blues and a sort of fatigue that comes with being in office for so long can be a lethal combination as New Zealand political history shows. National and its partners would do well to remember that.


Is the flag referendum a red flag for Key?

On Sunday 06 December 2015, for the first time in seven years of this National-led Government, I saw an article that suggested that it might be on the brink of a major defeat. And when one looks at all of the problems that are starting to engulf National, it is not terribly surprising. But this one is about more than National. This potential defeat, should it happen is about one man’s desire to change the flag, and an opposition that is galvanized enough to cause terminal damage to this Government.

I have never liked the flag referendums. To me it has always smacked of being a smoke screen for something much worse, such as probably the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. It just seemed when the idea first came to public attention that the timing was exquisitely poor, and had a huge stench of “why now?”.

There have been so many missed opportunities in the last 20 years, not just with this National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key, but also the preceding Labour-led Government of former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Like Ms Clark, Mr Key is seeking to leave behind some sort of legacy that he hopes New Zealand will remember him fondly for. Although there was nothing spectacular about it, Ms Clark’s Government is perhaps better remembered for solid governance in a period – 11 September 2001 aside – that was relatively peaceful and free of major disasters or bad world events. Now with his Government having done seven years and facing a crippling bout of third term-itis where Ministers become indifferent, mistakes start to increase and the Opposition more confident, Mr Key is trying to leave his mark.

He is struggling. The dislike of New Zealanders for the whole flag change idea is widespread – even many of my National Party mates think it is a dumb idea or that it is hiding something worse. Mr Key is struggling to shake of the perception that he will ignore the view of the voters, based on past reactions to laws changes and votes that have not gone his way. The resistance is growing and it is something that the Opposition parties are all working together on. Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are all dead set against it, using a considerable amount of their available media time to criticize the proposals. So is the Returned Services Association, many of whose members fought and died for that flag and all that it stood for then and now. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has also made public a suggestion to the public that they write “keep our flag” on the ballot papers.

The deadline to get votes back is Friday 11 December. Mr Key might be expecting a flood of votes to fill up mail bags all over New Zealand in the next few days, but as yet only a third of people have actually bothered voting

Could this be the red flag moment for the Prime Minister that the Opposition have spent so long trying to get? A moment when the opposition to something the Government is doing is so great that it – unless one wants to lose the 2017 election – is not worth continuing?