Flag 'debate' ideal for point scoring

12:24 pm on 28 September 2015

Power Play - It's difficult to know whether the political machinations over the flag have been driven by a true desire to improve process or score points more reminiscent of a primary school playground.

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Photo: Facebook / Red Peak NZ Flag

The Green Party stole a march this week and succeeded in passing legislation, albeit in the name of National's Bill English, which added the Red Peak design as a fifth option for an alternative flag design in the November referendum.

It has been fascinating to watch the political acrobatics as various parties have tried to stick to their stated principles, while heeding their instinct to respond to the public mood.

Prime Minister John Key, his antennae attuned as ever to shifting public opinion, has steadily backed away from his initial insistence on sticking to the hand-picked Flag Consideration Panel's recommendations and the programme his government has laid out.

Mr Key, however, was disingenuous when questioned as to why he was not willing to act in response to the groundswell of online public support for the Red Peak design.

It was always within his power to make the change, but he was waiting for another party to take the lead and cop any push-back that might result.

There were two options the government could have taken; swapped one of the existing four designs for Red Peak through an Order in Council, which would not necessitate a law change, or take a bill to Parliament to add a fifth option.

Mr Key demurred from the latter option claiming he did not want to do that without as broad cross-Parliament support as possible.

Evidence that level of support existed is shown by the fact only 12 New Zealand First votes were cast against the Red Peak legislation.

Then came the political sleight of hand; putting pressure on to Labour when Mr Key declared he would only countenance a change if he had Labour's full support.

His accompanying message was far from subtle, accusing Labour of lies and saying Labour had been inconsistent and uncooperative in the face of his own gracious olive branch.

Labour did itself no favours with its response. It could have called Mr Key's bluff, dropped its insistence the order of the referendum questions should be changed, and forged ahead with a member's bill to have Red Peak included.

Although letters exchanged between Labour leader Andrew Little and John Key's office did show Labour was trying to act in good faith, it was outplayed.

Mr Key used the deal breaker of changing the question to reject Labour's approaches, saying in a letter; "this is unacceptable to me and while Labour continues to take this position, I see no value in us meeting".

Mr Little tried a more conciliatory approach offering to "discuss any constructive alternative" and to meet "to discuss this matter, without preconditions, in the interests of coming to a common sense solution".

That letter did not even warrant a reply from the Prime Minister's office - the exchange had served its purpose. Mr Key could claim willingness to engage with Labour, which had in turn proven itself unwilling to compromise.

This left the ground wide open for the Greens to come through the middle and negotiate directly with National about including Red Peak as the fifth option, leaving aside the vexed issue of changing the referenda questions.

I imagine the National Party took great delight in being able to strike a deal with the Greens to progress the bill.

It delivered two benefits; getting the law change under the cloak of another party and locking the Greens into a deal where they would have to vote against their usual political ally.

During the parliamentary debate Labour made no effort to hide the fact it was peeved, with senior MP Trevor Mallard questioning in wounded tones Green Party honesty in its dealings with Labour.

Then the debate took an even more bizarre turn, with New Zealand First brandishing pictures of Nazi sentry boxes with a design that, if you squint, looks a bit like Red Peak - except that the red is actually orange... but details, details.

MP Denis O'Rourke said he took call after call to warn of the dangers of adopting Red Peak, or the "monstrosity", that would surely expose New Zealand to international ridicule and condemnation.

Warnings that failed to convince any other party to change its vote and oppose the legislation, which would be passed in the nick of time to allow the referendum papers to be changed accordingly.

Interesting to note, too, that Red Peak fever was primarily driven by social media, perhaps creating a disproportionate amount of noise and therefore influence on the political process.

Not to be forgotten are the many New Zealanders who staunchly oppose any change to the flag, and who may not have such a rowdy online presence.

But their votes will count for just as much when next year's referendum will pose the question: Do you want to change the flag?

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