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Mar 4, 2016 Politics

Second thoughts on the flag referendum? 

Read more: Why I’m voting to change the flag, by Simon Wilson

I blogged about the flag debate yesterday, and it was a bit like waving a blue-and-black rag in front of the proverbial. I said I wanted change, not for change’s sake, as many seem to have thought, but because I think we owe it to ourselves to have a flag that does not represent our colonial past. And that’s what the Union Jack does.

Critics of my blog made two main points, and I’ve been wrestling with both of them. One is that the new flag does not represent tangata whenua in any meaningful way. That dishonours not only Maori but all of us. The other is that the new flag is horrible. If we want change, don’t we owe it to ourselves to find something better than that?

In a general sense, I’d love to agree with both these points. It would be great if a no-change vote in the referendum caused the government to initiate a different and better process to find a new flag. One that placed far more emphasis on the quality of the designs. That made Maori symbolism mandatory. That did not produce, among its final options, three versions of a symbol known to be favoured by the prime minister of the day, whoever it is. For that matter, a new process could well include a law that keeps politicians out of the whole thing.

But I don’t believe that’s going to happen. A vote against change will end the process, probably not for 100 years as some have said, but it will be for a long time. “Next time get the process better,” tweeted one person. What next time?

As I said in my first blog, I think the best way to hasten “next time” is to vote for change this time. Voting to change our flag now will embolden us about changing other symbolic and constitutional matters, especially in the context of republicanism.

It’s true that Maori have been marginalised in this process, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone. I wrote in the earlier blog that we are the children of Kate Sheppard and Ed Hillary, and that was wrong of me, and stupid. I did not mean that as New Zealanders our whakapapa is entirely Pakeha, and I apologise for not thinking it through.

What I did meant was that we have a strong independent streak and a determination to find our own way to do things, so that we might make things better. I said this shows up in everything from social justice movements to climbing mountains, and I gave other examples, including the guerrilla warfare of many iwi in the Land Wars. As to our whakapapa, perhaps it is better to say we acknowledge many grandparents, and that they include Kupe and Whina Cooper as well as Sheppard and Hillary.

And if that is true, how do we represent it on our flag? I think we should, and I think that should have been mandated. But it wasn’t. The new flag says nothing about our unique biculturalism, but then nor does the old one. The best that can be said is that with the new flag we would perpetuate the status quo.

I know, that’s not good enough. But I do think, as I mentioned above, that having the new flag would take us a step closer to the much bigger and more important debate. That’s the republican debate, in which we think about ourselves in terms of a whole range of new symbols, practices and constitutional arrangements. We might call it the Aotearoa Project.

This flag thing is a warm-up for that.

As to the quality of the design, just for a moment let’s assume a no-change vote does jump start a new process. Would that be likely to give us better design options?

Consensus is a virtue in flag design, and yet great design (of flags or anything else) is not amenable to consensus. The Eiffel Tower, when it was proposed, united France in opposition to it. If Paratene Matchett’s wooden bridge over Jervois Quay in Wellington (a work of genius, in my view) had been put through a public approval process, it would never have been built.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s koru flag, surely as good an example of a koru design as one could find, has been around for more than 30 years. It’s reasonable to assume that if it had been capable of generating great popular support, it would have. Sadly, that has never happened.

As I said in my first blog, if you’re not going to vote for change until you, along with a majority of others, can agree on a flag design you think is outstanding, you will be waiting forever. Historical progress doesn’t work like that.

The question right now is not: can we find something else we prefer? That time has passed. It’s: which of the two options in front of us is better? Better, as in, more visually appealing, and better, as in more symbolically valuable?

Pictured: the Hundertwasser koru flag.



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