7 Mar 2016

Why has the flag debate become so heated?

5:44 pm on 7 March 2016

In just over two weeks time a decision will be made and - love it or hate it - New Zealand will either have a new flag or be sticking with the current one.

Much of the furore around the flag change has been about the process being politicised.

Silver Fern: Black, White and Blue flag

Silver Fern: Black, White and Blue flag Photo: Supplied

But civics educator Ryan Malone said it was not really possible to take the politics out of a change like this, and it was no surprise that the Prime Minister would reveal his preference.

"I think that if he had his time again, he probably would not have expressed his preference so early in the process, because I think people have linked that early preference of his with the product the panel put out.

"Perhaps if he hadn't signalled that preference early and then expressed it when the panel had produced those flags, he would seem to be more of an independent participant in the process."

Mr Malone said some people and political parties were using the process to try to inflict some damage on John Key.

And he said using a referendum to choose a new flag was probably not the best approach because four million people would never agree on what a good design was.

"We're choosing a flag by four million people on a committee. Never do anything by committee, yet we are trying to choose a flag.

"The concern that some people have - they don't like the flag therefore the process has been flawed - I don't particularly buy that.

"Sure, some things might have been done differently, but they put out a panel of people from across a range of groups across New Zealand, they produced some options, we get to choose - so it is a fairly democratic way of doing something."

Political commentator Morgan Godfrey said the debate over the flag had become extremely heated and in some cases was a bit nasty.

He thought that was mostly because the advocates for changing the flag never really made a compelling case other than that New Zealand's flag was too much like Australia's flag.

"That strikes me as quite a weak argument, one that reflects insecurity, rather than a genuine desire to reaffirm or reshape our national identity.

"So I think when you come up against the counter arguments, these things like tradition and heritage, you need to make a really strong and compelling case. And I think the people who are behind that heritage and traditional argument, people like Winston Peters, when that comes under attack, there's a temptation to go on the counter-attack and I think that's a big reason why."

Karl Kane is a lecturer in design at Massey University and runs the design and democracy project.

He said choosing a new flag had been neither a design process nor a democratic process.

"There's a real clash of an old world, top down way of making decisions and where we are now, and I think that design is a wonderful mechanism for making good decisions and really working with people to great result, but unfortunately this has been more of the illusion of inclusion than a truly inclusive design process."

The proposed flag, left, sits alongside the current flag.

The proposed flag, left, sits alongside the current flag. Photo: RNZ

Mr Kane said it has been said over and over again, but not having designers on the Flag Consideration Panel was a huge oversight.

But he said the process had also been far too rushed.

"What needed to have happened that was different, was the facilitation of a design process and a discourse, and it required things that were missing - time being the main one.

"I think by the time we got to the inclusion of Red Peak we started to see the discourse reach a maturity, but by that point it was too late and we were left with a very limited range of options."

Mr Kane said it had been good that people had become so passionate about the debate, because changing a nation's flag was a big decision.

Designer and writer Michael Smythe said there was no doubt that lots of people wanted to change the flag, but the new one on offer was beyond mediocre.

"The problem now is that we're half way through a very good trial and error process, but it's a trial and error process and we haven't reached the end of it yet but we're stuck with having to make a decision.

"Many people who advocated for change, and all the designers I know wanted to change the flag, but none of them want to change it to this one."

The preliminary results of the second referendum will be announced on the evening of Thursday 24 March

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs