Flag vote reflects reluctance to change

Michael Stevenson kisses partner Rochelle Lord after she jumped from a 7.5m diving board, won a ...
Michael Stevenson kisses partner Rochelle Lord after she jumped from a 7.5m diving board, won a $6000 diamond ring and then proposed. Photos by Stephen Jaquiery.
The flag referendum was doomed to fail because the agenda was pushed on the electorate rather than it growing from a desire to change, a New Zealand historian says.

Flag changes historically come from moments of change in national identity, University of Otago history lecturer Michael Stevens says.

"Flags are often born out of a moment of crisis or a moment of renewal. They mean something,'' Dr Stevens said.

"Part of [the reason the flag referendum failed to result in change] is because there's nothing like that at the moment.

"[Prime Minister John] Key said ‘oh, it's a marketing thing' and to a lot of people that was insulting. They thought, ‘is that all the flag means?'.''

The preliminary results of the second referendum, announced on Thursday night, show 56.6% voted to keep the current flag.

Dr Stevens said Mr Key's attempt to thrust a flag change on to the political agenda meant the process was unlikely to succeed.

"There was some block voting going on from the Left and then you have centre-right voters who are inherently conservative, so this was always difficult,'' he said.

He felt the process was contrived by Mr Key in a desire to leave a legacy, rather than tapping into a desire for change.

"He has to downplay that now, but of course, it was,'' he said.

"Every prime minister wants to leave an enduring mark. To be human is to be vain.''

He personally wanted to change the flag but felt the alternative was "bloody awful'' and New Zealanders' resistance to change had also impacted the chances of change.

"New Zealanders are simple people. DB, Speight's; Ford, Holden; Labour, National; yes, no; black or white. We don't like change for change's sake.''

However, considering the UK's transgressions against New Zealand in the past, it meant the removal of the Union Jack would come about, he said.

"We have these key moments where Britain is clearly not thinking about New Zealand,'' he said.

"The longer it is there the more increasingly bizarre it becomes.

"It would be somewhere between ridiculous and hilarious to think we would [continue to carry the Union Jack]. It will become an increasingly archaic and historic symbol.

"It's out of place and out of time now.''

What would cause the eventual desire for change was completely speculation, he said.

"These moments occur in the lives of nations. The non-change in the flag has come from the non-change in the constitution. If and when these major things change, then we will get a change in the flag.''

The low turnout in the first referendum - 48.8% - showed New Zealanders did not feel engaged by the process, he said.

Peter Chin
Peter Chin

Flag Consideration Panel member and former Dunedin mayor Peter Chin said the panel had performed its task as well as it could and "the public was engaged on all fronts''.

"It's symptomatic of our whole society,'' he said.

"It's the society we live [in]. People might be passionate about certain things but it doesn't mean they are actually going to be involved in the process to change.''

Mr Chin said the results of the second referendum reflected people's views on changing the flag.

"The people have spoken,'' he said.

He felt the panel had done "the best job we could, in all thecircumstances''.

"The panel did it's work very accurately, following the terms of reference it had, but then the politicians got involved,'' he said.

"They all had their own opinions and voiced their own opinions and it took off from there.''

Asked about his preference, he said: "My views are between me and the ballot box and I'm quite happy it remains that way.''

He did not expect the issue to be raised again anytime soon, as "there has to be time given for people to forget the pain attached to the cost'' of the referendum.

timothy.brown@odt.co.nz

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