Red Peak, red faces - flag turns into a farce

The Greens and National have combined today to add Red Peak to the flag referendum, and in doing so have ensured a troubled process has crossed into slapstick

So, listening or politicking? When it comes to Red Peak's inclusion in the flag referendum, I'm thinking the latter. While the Greens and National are trying to reflect public opinion by adding Red Peak, it seems more like point scoring that got out of control and weak governance by twitter.

The Greens today tried to push Red Peak into the referendum, issuing a press release at lunchtime:

The Green Party will today ask Parliament to allow it to introduce a Bill offering New Zealanders the choice of the popular Red Peak flag as a fifth option in the upcoming flag referendum.


Green Party MP Gareth Hughes will seek the leave of Parliament to introduce the New Zealand Flag Referendum Amendment Bill 2015 and put it at the top of the order paper. This requires the support of every MP in Parliament if it is to be successful.


“My Bill is about giving New Zealanders a choice following the groundswell of support for the Red Peak flag to be included as an option in the upcoming flag referendum,” said Mr Hughes.

That swell didn't get far off the ground as far as I can see; it was a Twitter campaign that got some reportage and a little over one percent of the population to sign a petition. But the Greens put up the bill today. New Zealand First voted against it. Then National decided to pick up the bill themselves - a move they could have made at any time, without the Greens' nudge - and it's being debated in parliament as I speak.

Hughes has been arguing that this is about choice - usually ACT's default virtue. That it's about listening to people and breaking a political deadlock. That's fine as far as it goes, but it all just feels so underwhelming. It's not breaking some big political impasse to feed the poor or boost exports. It's just adding a fifth choice to a flag referendum most New Zealanders don't seem to even want.

As this week's 3News-Reid Research poll showed, only a quarter of New Zealanders want to change the flag. The groundswell just doesn't seem to be there.

Hughes says the Greens "wanted to make sure it wasn't the farce it was turning into". But this only adds to the farce. Now, the process of a selected panel, months of public consultation and a long and short list has been completely undermined by an online protest campaign. It admits that all those empty town hall meetings counted for nothing, because all that really matters, it seems, is those who speak via social media.

But if an entire flag selection process can be changed on a whim for Red Peak, why not do what Labour says and change the timing of the referendum questions? I bet you could get more than 50,000 people to sign a petition for that one. Or, if the polls and public buzz are anything to go by, why not cancel the whole thing? I reckon you could get 50,000 to sign up to that, too.

If it wasn't a farce before, it is now. John Key's legacy project has become a joke. If, as I wrote last week, Lochinver was the crown jewels of all u-turns, then this is the, er, peak of reactive government. It's leadership by a wet finger in the wind, decisions out-sourced to social media.

Eight weeks out from the referendum, and the panel has been pushed to one side and we're tossing a new design into the mix.

Good on the people who got behind the flag they liked; there's nothing wrong with championing a cause. But the problem is we've seen the long list and lots of people would have liked lots of different ones. What about those who liked the Unity Koru? Or Otis Frizell's Manawa? Or Huihui? Why don't they get to add their personal favourites?

Because they didn't get an online campaign going, you say? Is that really the way we decide good process and make a decision for the generations? We choose our national symbol by petition?

In July, flag minister Bill English told the House that the bill that's today being rejigged under urgency would ensure "that the debate about the New Zealand flag is resolved through a formal, careful, and respectful process where New Zealanders can have their say".

Well, that's gone out the window. There's no principle in this amendment. No due process. No respect for choosing a symbol that is meant to unite and represent us all and bring us together.

Red Peak feels like the Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump of flags; really popular amongst true believers, but really not as big a deal as is made out. It seems like these days if you can get a little group to make enough noise, amplified by social media, then you are given credit for capturing the national mood, even when you represent only one or two percent.

I want to change the flag. When the time is right. When there is a sense of history. But I've never felt the public coming behind this process. I didn't like the four 'any colour as long as it's a fern' logos chosen. And I'm cool on Red Peak. But even if I loved it or a Lockwood, I'd find it hard to vote for change now.

This process is no longer "formal, careful, and respectful"; it's a farce.