My sole contribution to the great flag debate

Apparently, we have to vote twice to decide whether we prefer the current flag to something else. So why was one vote enough when we were voting on our electoral system?

I really don't care very much about the whole debate over changing the flag. It just doesn't move me all that much. I have no great fondness for the current design, but equally none of the forty alternatives particularly grip my emotions or imagination. In fact, the Sydney Morning Herald's pisstake of the long-list pretty much sums up my overall thoughts on them.

(Of all the options current and proposed, the "Seven Stars of Matariki" and "Black Jack" probably appeal the most. But as I figure there is zero chance of these getting to the 4-strong shortlist - you think we're really going to go with a black flag? - that's pretty irrelevant.)

In fact, I'm pretty take-it-or-leave-it on the whole point of having a "national" flag. Sure, we need something to put up on public buildings and hoist a few times at sporting events. But I quite like the fact that we've got a bunch of other generally used national symbols that can be appropriated for different purposes. The silver fern for putting onto backpacks in Europe. The Kiwi for our armed forces and "Buy NZ Made" logos. The Koru for when we're feeling the need to be all bi-cultural.

Each identify us as New Zealanders. But none of them are considered the identifying symbol for us all as a nation. And maybe it's the very artificiality of trying to construct one symbol to rule them all and on the cloth bind them (to take another quintessentially New Zealand trope that we've appropriated from elsewhere) that makes me feel somewhat jaded about the whole exercise.

Or maybe it's just that, as Ian MacKaye et al put it, "We draw lines and stand behind them/ That's why flags are such ugly things."

Anyway, that's all a long winded explanation (excuse?) for why I'm going to avoid having to think about the issue by delegating the choice to my 7 and 4 year old kids. They can look at whatever four options we're eventually told are "the best alternatives" and see which one they like the most ... and then decide if the most favoured of those four is any better than our original. After all, they'll live with the consequences for longer (I hope!), and as I don't really care they may as well do the deciding.

There's one little point that I want to make about the politics of the whole debate, however. Audrey Young's Herald column today is pretty scathing about the Labour and Green Party's decision to take an oppositional approach to the whole referendum. Fair enough - it is a pretty transparently opportunistic decision to avail themselves of the opportunity to hammer the National Government with the whole "why are we spending $26 million on this, when we could be doing that?" attack line. Whether that is worse than John Key's born-again desire to create a new and independent branding for New Zealand, without actually creating a new and independent constitution for New Zealand, is for the eye of the beholder.

But Audrey Young then goes on to say:

 Labour also argues there should have been a referendum first to see whether voters wanted change before spending the money on the process.

But you wouldn’t expect to agree to a free house-paint without knowing what colour it was going to be.

And as the officials designing the process pointed out, “asking people to vote without seeing what these alternative designs look like would risk the legitimacy of the referendum process”.

David Farrar also chips in with his cut-and-paste agreement:

It’s silly to have a vote, without knowing what you are voting on.

Well, that's OK as far as it goes. But here's the problem I have with this claim. In the past 25 years we've had two referendums that did exactly this. I'm referring, of course, to the first round of the referenda on changing the electoral system held in 1992 and 2011.

At both of these referenda, voters were asked two questions: "do you want to change the electoral system?"; and "which alternative voting system would you prefer?" Only if a majority of people voted "yes" to change was the preferred alternative voting system then put up against the status quo in a straight run-off vote. That happened in 1992, but didn't happen in 2011.

So I guess here's my question. If that process was considered good enough for deciding whether to change the voting system, why wasn't it good enough for deciding whether to change the flag?