So, the ol' flag debate, eh? But is now really the time? And is the process John Key suggested really the best way forward? And as for the silver fern...
Gee, exactly what did Winston Peters give John Key for Christmas? It must have been a doozy of a present, because election year's barely begun and Key looks to be handing Peters his second boost. Yep, there's nothing like a flag debate to motivate older voters.
Yesterday the Prime Minister mused that it could be time to hold a referendum on whether to change the New Zealand flag, saying "I'd like to see a change".
Perhaps he thinks such a referendum would help the turnout of National Party voters as well – or perhaps he's just riffing. Personally, I think it could help lift turnout across the board – from an older generation voting to keep the status quo through to a higher Maori turnout as Mana and the Maori Party leveraged any referendum as a sovereignty issue. Although, having said that, a close election will likely get people out anyway.
More than anything else, it would be a significant boost for New Zealand First in its quest to reach the five percent threshold. Having already given Winston Peters the gift of relevance with his willingness to consider New Zealand First as a potential coalition partner, it's 'Happy new year Winston' all over again.
As for the flag and the referendum process, Key's comment yesterday were ill-judged. First up, he said the process would probably be a single referendum in which the current flag was pitched against another design suggested by government.
No thanks. If New Zealand is to change the flag – or should I say when – it should be a ground-up debate with a design that comes from the people. The alternative flag shouldn't be decreed by any government. Or even parliament.
National actually has a sound model to follow already, in the way Simon Power designed the MMP referendums. In that case Power crafted a two-referendum process that was widely applauded as unbiased and sensible. The same format could be used when it comes to our flag.
As in 2011, the first referendum would ask if voters wanted change, and if so what sort of change. That is, a list of no more than, say, half a dozen flags could be offered for voters to debate. Which half dozen? That could be decided by parliament at a pinch; or better, a hastily convened panel.
If there was majority support at this year's election for a vote on the flag, then it could be held at the 2017 election, where the current flag could go up against the alternative chosen by voters. That's a much more democratic way of proceeding.
But should we proceed at all? I wrote the word "hastily" a few moments ago and it strikes me that everything about this seems all rather hasty. Frankly, it's very late in the day to begin this significant constitutional change and my instinct is that it shouldn't be done in such a rushed fashion. Power formerly announced the MMP referendum and precisely how it would run fully two years ahead of the vote. In this case Key is musing about ifs and maybes no more than 10 months out from an election.
I'm surprised that at least some of the criticism thus far hasn't been that the off-hand proposal and the short timeframe allowed for is disrespectful of the flag and what it stands for.
But one of the criticisms already put forward by the RSA is telling. It asks whether it's sensible – and sensitive – to debate the flag on the eve of the Gallipoli centenary. And it's a very fair question. Is this election – as we are about to spend a year honouring the many thousands of young men who died with this flag on their uniforms – the worst time to be holding such a debate? Alternatively, is it precisely the best time?
Key himself noted that timing would have a significant bearing on the result. Around the World Cup, he said, you'd have got a different result. Well, surely that's doubly true if you hold the referendum in the shadow of a major war anniversary!
As for the flag itself, I think the silver fern logo would be a mistake. Sure, it's a great branding tool. But a flag is meant to strike a much deeper chord than that. And it's meant to speak to not just an image, but who we are and how we see ourselves, our heritage and our sovereignty. New Zealand Inc is a useful way to think about New Zealand when it comes to exports and industry, but not when it comes to our identity.
So it's good that Key has said he'll speak to senior ministers about his scheme. Perhaps we'll get some collective wisdom around a better process once more brains are engaged on the issue. Or just as likely, perhaps we'll see the whole issue quietly shelved and put aside for another day, another generation.