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.

Comments (17)

by Josie Pagani on January 30, 2014
Josie Pagani

Someone tweeted: “What kids in poverty really want is a new flag.”

David Armstrong tweeted the irony of a PM who brought back knighthoods, then wants to get rid of the Union Jack on our flag.

You're right Tim, this is a cynical move, all about creating options after election day.

I want a new flag, but I wouldn’t change my vote over the issue. Most people wouldn't, but there is one crucial group of people who might: Conservatives (NZ First , Colin Craig...)

If you’re the kind of person who thinks the flag our soldiers died under is more important than what they died for, then you might be overwrought enough to change your vote.

It's a clever move: John Key teases out a debate about flag, managing to deflect attention from a conversation about the cost of living that is beginning to create difficulties for him. Then he sets up a referendum on the issue. He doesn’t really care about the outcome of the referendum. He wants the debate. 

As passions rise conservative voters will agitate to stop a change vote. The focus of attention will be irresistible for small conservative parties. They don't have to win the issue, they just have to create enough attention in response to the flag issue to attract a small, vocal band of support. And from these strands, John Key hopes to create a conservative coalition partner. And if it doesn't work, no harm done.


by Fentex on January 30, 2014

It's a silly debate sans significant constitutional change. We aren't going to seriously consider a new flag until we seriously consider becoming a Republic.

And we're not going to do that for a generation or two without some crisis - such as the governor general trying to dismiss a popular government or some shocking dispute with the U.K.

Not to mention the despairing lack of a credible alternative - the Silver Fern on black is a poor flag. Flags need to be simple, bright, easily recognizeable at distance in low light, easy to draw and approximate with limited materials and hopefully have a character that evokes the place they represent. A black background is inappropriate to these purposes.

Not to mention it's a trademarked syumbol and adopting it would probably require legislation to invalidate those trademarks.

That New Zealanders like to display pride in our sports teams should not be confused with a design for a more inclusive symbol of national identity, which we don't currently have to hand.

by Ian MacKay on January 30, 2014
Ian MacKay

It seems possible to me that John Key is poking a massive insult disguised as a benevolent gesture to the will of the people. Consider the contempt he showed for the outcome of the previous referendum. What an outrageous followup to suggest a referendum about a flag! I think Key is showing contempt for us hidden by a friendly grin and earnest hypocrisy.

by Andrew Osborn on January 30, 2014
Andrew Osborn

I think you're all drawing an enormously long bow.

Every year I have lived here there has been the same tired old debate about the flag, regardless of who is in power.

Only the media care - something to fill a gap in an otherwise event free news day



by Richard Aston on January 30, 2014
Richard Aston

Josie, a very interesting take and I fully agree it’s all Machiavellian.

Another angle is Key is doing a “does my bum look big in this” survey of voters to see what response he gets and which way his voters will turn. Too many against and he will gracefully withdraw = victory for the conservative voters = maybe he get a few more of Winston’s voters coming over to national.

And yes Tim a wildly inappropriate time to kick off this debate, which of course leaves us wondering and speculating why.

by william blake on January 30, 2014
william blake

Does this constitutional change, that the P.M. is suggesting, have anything to do with the TPPA? This secret agreement seems to be undermining our sovereignty so perhaps a simple change from the Union Jack to the Stars and Stripes should suffice.

by Richard Aston on January 30, 2014
Richard Aston


I care

The longbow gained the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

I wouldn't underate the longbow or wild speculation

by Will de Cleene on January 30, 2014
Will de Cleene

Regarding your perplexity of the timing on NatRad's Panel, might I suggest pre-loading for Waitangi Day. Either way, many will be googling the NZ flag in new light next week.

by Tim Watkin on January 30, 2014
Tim Watkin

Will, I still don't get it or how it's some great distraction. Josie maybe onto something re Craig and the Conservatives. But I don't see any great advantage to the Nats. Why would Key care about this Waitangi Day? Or googling?

by Ross on January 30, 2014

it's very late in the day to begin this significant constitutional change

A significant constitutional change? I don't think so...

by Frank Macskasy on January 30, 2014
Frank Macskasy

How touching to see Dear Leader is suddenly a convert to referenda.

After all, he casually dismissed the last one, opposing asset sales,  with the 1,332,340 signatures plastered all over it. He said it was "interesting" - then ignored it.

Anyhoo, let's not be coy about this. It's a political stunt; a deflection; during an election year.  Whatever Key was up to, I doubt it worked very well.




by Andrew Osborn on January 31, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Richard: ...and I fully agree it’s all Machiavellian

What's the quote: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you...





by Andrew Osborn on January 31, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Frank: How touching to see Dear Leader is suddenly a convert to referenda

Just like the slapping referendum, the number of MPs referendum, the harsher sentencing referendum etc.

I think the term used is "non binding"





by Andrew Geddis on January 31, 2014
Andrew Geddis

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.

While I said at the time that the process Power got Cabinet to agree to was both "unbiased and sensible", he didn't exactly come up with it himself! It was a rerun of the referendums in 1992-1993 ... so whomsoever came up with the idea back then (Doug Graham?) should properly get the credit.

That said, I agree with pretty much everything you've written here.

by stuart munro on January 31, 2014
stuart munro

I wonder if Key's real objective is to erode the flag as an enduring national symbol. The nation state is the only significant bulwark against the depredations of modern global corporations, as well as being the unit of political accountability. Key is for corporate looting and against political accountability, so his desire to confuse the symbols around which opposition might coalesce is understandable.

Much cleverer than genuine Key moves though - guess this was Crosby Textor.

by Rab McDowell on February 01, 2014
Rab McDowell

There is always going to something more important than the flag, or even the continuation of the monarchy.

However, I would pick that most New Zealanders, maybe over 90 percent of them, think the flag is too like Australia's and represents too little of NZ.

So lets just do it. Canada did it and has got something uniquely Canadian. Why does it always have to be considered as part of some greater devious plot, no matter who proposes it.

Only problem is I think black never looks good on a flag unless its the Jolly Roger.

by Peter Matthewson on February 01, 2014
Peter Matthewson

You're right Tim, it seems like a brainwave Key had that morning. Yes I agree the time has come to thiink about a new flag, but not a hastily arranged contest between the current flag and one John Key happens to like. The silver fern is too associated with sporting endeavours at the expense of other aspects of life. I think any new flag should also reflect our bicultural heritage. 

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.