Flag debate 'conundrum' for Labour, Greens

Being a political animal, I decided the irresistible rugby match during the last Rugby World Cup was Russia v America at Yarrow's Stadium in New Plymouth.

Sadly, the merchandise for the two teams had sold out that day, which is how I came to have a woolly hat in my wardrobe featuring the flag of Namibia, formerly South West Africa.

And a confession: while I don't lack patriotism, I feel more comfortable wearing the Namibian hat to a rugby game than one with the New Zealand flag on it.

The lack of connection to the New Zealand flag may go back to childhood and the fact our house in Hawera had a turret with a flagpole on top of it.

Having the New Zealand flag flying from its roof - and sporting portraits of the Queen on the lounge wall - was not cool.

It was embarrassing.

The flag was the symbol of conservatism and tradition to which children of the '60s and '70s were not endeared.

It was a symbol of war.

While my attitude and respect for soldiers has decidedly improved over the years, I cannot love my flag and I relish the chance for a referendum on it.

Whether that is a common experience may become clear when the debate cranks up.

At this stage, the long list of the final 40 having just been published, the debate has barely begun, apart from the objections from Opposition parties, two of which appear to be opposing the review for opposition's sake.

Quite what Labour and the Greens will do when the debate gains momentum will present a conundrum for them.

They cannot continue to attack the referendum process without indirectly attacking the New Zealanders who are interested in it and want to be part of it.

They have ignored a basic principle in politics as it is in life: to thine own self be true, or the voters will see right through you.

It was understandable for the parties to rail against the Government's asset sales programme last term - even though National won a mandate for it - because it was against Labour and Green policy.

But to rail against a review of the New Zealand flag - which National also promised at the last election - when it echoes your own party's policy is simply dishonest and erodes trust in a party.

How can you trust a party that objects to its own policy?

Labour in particular has made a series of misjudgements over its positioning.

By describing it simply as a ''vanity project'' of Prime Minister John Key, Labour belittles those who don't care what Mr Key thinks but who would like a say in what the flag should be.

Labour is creating a wedge issue among its own supporters, many of whom want a change.

Labour has assumed that low turnout to public meetings on the flag means no-one cares.

Conversely, it could mean there is not wide resistance to it.

Like any such events in life - elections, sports contests, commemorations - interest always grows.

The low turnout to public meetings on the flag was no surprise.

There may even be a low turnout to the first postal referendum (November 20 to December 11) to choose the best alternative from four final flags.

But the interest in the referendum that really counts, the one from March 3 to 24, will be intense.

That is when the present flag will be put up against a single alternative.

I'll bet the turnout for that vote will be as high as a general election.

Labour also argues there should have been a referendum first to see whether voters wanted change before spending the money on the process.

But you wouldn't expect to agree to a free house-paint without knowing what colour it was going to be.

And, as the officials designing the process pointed out, ''asking people to vote without seeing what these alternative designs look like would risk the legitimacy of the referendum process''.

Supposing Labour had its way and the answer was yes, you would then be looking at two further referendums to give voters a clear choice between the present one and a single alternative.

Looking around for further excuses, Labour says it's not the right time to discuss the flag; there are too many other issues to worry about.

It might have a point if social welfare benefits were being cut instead of increased, or if ACC levies were being increased instead of cut, but they are not.

Now is as good a time as any and $26million is not much to spend for a new flag that might be around for another 100 years.

Labour leader Andrew Little this week said he would not vote in the referendum and, more absurdly, the party's flag spokesman Trevor Mallard said that in November's preferential vote he would rank the flag he thought was best the last and the flag he disliked the most the best.

That way, if everyone were as clever as Trevor, the present flag would be pitted against the most horrible one in March, the present flag would stay and Mr Key could be accused of having wasted time and money.

Even if the old flag is kept, engaging the public in debate and the ultimate decision is above criticism in my view.

The Namibian flag was chosen by a committee in 1990 and the colours were the same as SWAPO, the liberation group.

As flags go, the Namibian flag is heavy on formal symbolism: A red diagonal stripe represents the heroism of the people, a blue triangle represents the sky and ocean, a green triangle represents the environment, white borders represent peace and unity and the yellow sun represents life and energy.

There are similarly symbolic emblems among the 40 in the long list.

I suspect Kiwis will be more content to have a flag that just feels like ''home''.

 Audrey Young is The New Zealand Herald's political editor.

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