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Mar 23, 2016 Politics

What a fiasco the whole thing turned out to be. Tomorrow, we’ll know if the silver fern was merely beaten by the Union Jack or completely smashed. Either way, there won’t be another chance to vote on the matter in the lifetimes of most of us, let alone on a more substantial change to our national identity, such as a republic.

Among the hundreds of thousands of people who voted will be nearly as many combinations of rationale. Most people, undoubtedly, just voted for the flag they liked best. But political commentary relies on generalisations and the two groups who really mattered were those conservative National Party voters who are nevertheless willing to back anything John Key suggests, and those progressive Labour and Green voters who would normally be sympathetic to change but couldn’t bring themselves to support anything associated with that man.

The former talked themselves into liking a flag they would have despised if promoted by Helen Clark. The latter whipped themselves into a frenzy over a design they insisted was not just inadequate but abominable. Plus, Grey Lynn sniffed, letting the hoi polloi vote on anything so highbrow as flag design was plain vulgar. Such decisions should be left to so-called vexillologists, of which the New Zealand Twitterati seemed to have an ever-growing number.

The call now from liberal quarters is for a mature, inclusive and constructive “national conversation” about nationhood, leading to the full package of a republic, enshrining the Treaty of Waitangi as the founding document, along with a new flag and national anthem. We would talk about who we are, where we have come from, and what we want to be: much better than Key’s crude attempt to draw a new flag.

Neat and tidy public debate and consensus is possible, but only in the context of North Korea.

But mature, inclusive and constructive “national conversations” don’t happen in the real world, especially on esoteric questions. Many people — perhaps even a majority — aren’t interested in being part of them. Others are quite happy with how things are, thanks very much. Some become angered by the very prospect of change. The liberal elite and the Wellington bureaucracy become so enraptured by “conversation” they never want it to end. But no amount of conversation will ever reconcile, say, those who want the treaty to be the founding document and those who wish it would all go away. Neat and tidy public debate and consensus is possible, but only in the context of North Korea.

In reality, pluralistic societies are messy societies and pluralism our most important value. Achieving progressive social change — whether a republic, a new flag, marriage equality, banning child assault, launching the treaty- settlement process, the anti-nuclear policy, homosexual law reform, the Official Information Act, or universal franchise — will never occur just because we’ve all talked nicely to one another for long enough. They all emerge out of complex political situations and when both elected and civil-society leaders are prepared to take risks. They require progressive forces to compromise with conservative ones — in the case of the flag, for Grey Lynn to acknowledge that rugby and Richie McCaw are at least as important to our national identity as the Treaty of Waitangi and Claudia Orange.

Because of the complexity of achieving enduring social change, it can be easier to effect it under National governments than Labour. Getting the necessary majority for change — and well over 50 percent is preferred on questions of national identity — requires the vast bulk of those at the progressive end of politics to back it, supported by a reasonable hunk of those who are more conservative. These conditions don’t arise together very often.

Many of the left-wing victors celebrating the defeat of Key’s flag crusade tell themselves another opportunity to achieve change will emerge before too long — but they are like Australians who voted against the 1999 republic model in the hope another option would be put on the table. Nearly a generation later, there is no prospect of the idea being revived. The former leader of the republican movement, Malcolm Turnbull, has no intention of going near the issue despite now being prime minister.

After Key’s defeat, no future National Party leader who is alive today will go near the issue again. For the foreseeable future, sour grapes mean National will actively oppose any attempt by a Labour government to revive it, if there ever is one. And what is true for a new flag is more so for the difficult issues around a republic.

When we voted against the new flag, we flagged both it and a republic for a generation.

A version of this article is published in the April 2016 issue of Metro, on sale now. Photo: Getty.


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