1 Oct 2015

Flag fallacies: What not to believe

12:47 pm on 1 October 2015

Now that the ballot paper is (presumably) final, it's time to clear up some of the inaccuracies floating around on social media regarding the flag referendum.

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New Zealanders will be asked to choose between alternative designs, and then the winner will go up against the existing flag. Photo: RNZ

First, a quick reminder of the process: there will be two referenda. The first, between 20 November and 11 December 2015 will ask "If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?"

The second, in March 2016, will ask people to choose between the most preferred option from the first referendum and the current flag.

How to make sure you're eligible to vote in the referenda (Electoral Commission)

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is advocating people write "keep our flag" on their ballot paper, and not vote. That means - like any other kind of spoiled ballot - the vote will be ruled "informal".

"If there are more 'informals' than votes on the design there can be no credibility in the process and a second referendum cannot surely go ahead, saving millions of dollars," his Facebook page says.

An informal vote is any paper where a clear first preference can't be determined, for whatever reason. While it's true that writing "keep our flag" on the ballot paper would mean the vote would be ruled informal, that wouldn't stop a second referendum happening.

There's nothing in the legislation which would cancel the second referendum - not even low turnout. That may come as a surprise to the 15,000 people who have signed up to boycott the first one.

Also appearing frequently on social media is the idea that changing the flag makes some difference to New Zealand's constitutional arrangements - perhaps in an attempt to pass the TPP.

"A change of flag means not only that we have taken a major step to removing the due authority of the Crown. It also means we take away the very power which enforces both the 1981 Bill of Rights Act (the closest thing New Zealand has to an entrenched constitution) and the founding plank upon which the Treaty of Waitangi has meaning," said one widely shared post.

New Zealand's constitution can be difficult to understand - a mixture of legislation, case law and convention - but that's utter nonsense, said Dr Dean Knight, a senior lecturer in law at Victoria University.

"The flag is an emblem of nationhood. It doesn't in any way control or constrain the government or other state actors."

A flag reflects national identity and nationhood, Dr Knight said, but that doesn't mean it translates to the actions of the government.

A mock ballot paper showing how the flag referendum ballot paper might look

In the first referendum voters will rank the five alternative flags. Photo: Electoral Commission

In the National Business Review, Chris Keall is concerned that the design of the first referendum, in particular preferential voting, means the preferred flag will be a fern, no matter what.

"Voters who put one of the fern designs at 1 will presumably put the other two at 2 and 3 on their ballots. Effectively, the fern is a triple threat," he writes.

"The deck is stacked against Red Peak (and that lousy possum tail take on the koru, on the off-chance anyone's planning to vote for that)."

You could, in fact, simply mark your first preference, and not any others, or rank all from one to five.

"If no flag option gets 50 percent or more of the first preference votes, the flag with the least number '1' votes is dropped and its votes go to the flag each voter ranked next," states the Electoral Commission.

This continues until one flag gets 50 percent or more of the valid votes.

Those that thought it was all decided, though, should think again. Within minutes of the legislation to include Red Peak in the first referendum passing, a petition to include the current flag was on the internet.

They will have to get in quick, though. Ballot papers will be printed at the end of October, a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said.

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