Guest column: “… this contrived, rigged and expensive farce of a flag referendum”

By Rosemary Francis.

Our dear, familiar flag is fluttering in front of my house. And for good measure, another flies above my rear fence. No one will doubt my choice of flag in this contrived, rigged and expensive farce of a flag referendum. The government’s estimated cost of the clumsy, two-part referendum was $26 million. Since then, to silence some of their critics, they have added the ‘red peak’ design, which is almost identical to the logo of a uniform producer. The estimated cost of adding this to the other four selected designs is a further $380,000. If any of these designs are selected, then additional millions will be spend changing all flags on buildings, documents and uniforms.

The big, intangible questions about New Zealand and our values are now tied up with a two-part referendum. In November we get to pick one flag from the shortlist of four. There is no place to vote to keep our Red White and Blue. This gives Key and his cohorts four months to continue to push for a flag change before the second referendum pits our existing flag against the brand-logo-like leading selection. Respected Kiwis have spoken out on the potential new ensigns. Actor Sam Neill, in an act of constructive patriotism, wrote “Three look like logos for a new sportswear franchise, while the koru looks like a tidal wave of despair”. Dougal McNeill thinks the four designs are “Banal bovine and bland”, which reflects the Government’s world view. 

Claire Robinson, Political Scientist at my Alma Mater Massey University, agrees that the flag debate has gone wrong. “The silver fern,” she says, “is a symbol for exporters and sports teams, not a symbol of New Zealand as a whole.” It is the brand identity of “NZ Inc”, an umbrella label for government departments that face offshore. The flag should be seen as a broader symbol or sign than simply part of New Zealand’s business. In pushing for the silver fern as the new flag, Key is acting as the leader of NZ Inc, big business, rather than as our Prime Minister. The flag debate has represented a competition more than a discussion. Looking at Key’s role in pushing for his choice, Robinson thinks “he is moving into territory that is almost unethical for a prime minister.”

Victoria University’s political scientist Jo Johansson in his new book “Moment of truth” states that, “ The flag change was always intended as a legacy project.” With four of the flag choices featuring a version of the fern, “it’s just too obvious that the fix is in with the fern.” As a Republican, Johannson has a different view of how a flag change process should go: The historic Treaty claims will be settled, and Charles will succeed the queen, making the question of a republic relevant. This would be the time to consider a new flag which represented all Kiwis.

When I began primary school 65 years ago, the entire school lined up every morning on the basketball courts, facing the flag pole and watching the Red, White and Blue being raised. Then, after the headmaster’s pep talk, rousing military marching music blasted forth from loud speakers atop the flagpole. Class by class, in pairs, we marched off, exaggeratedly swinging our arms as we circled the courts several times before marching off to class. I enjoyed this stirring start to our school day. I was proud of our beautiful flag, and all it stood for.

In my pre-teen years as a Brownie and a Girl Guide, we learned about flags, how to raise and lower them onto our shoulder, how to fold them. We learned respect for what this piece of cloth represented, and the significance of its symbols. One upper quadrant shows the Union Jack of Great Britain, representing our Christian heritage with the red cross of St George of England, and the diagonal crosses of St Patrick of Ireland and St Andrew of Scotland. ‘The Jack’ shows where most of our immigrants came from; my father being a first generation migrant from Britain, and my mother a fourth generation English migrant. The other three quarters of our flag of deep blue represents our beautiful Pacific Ocean with the four stars of our Southern Cross . Yes, our flag is similar to Australia’s, but minus the fifth star, which is not visible from New Zealand.

It seems right to have similar flags representing our ‘Down Under’ South Pacific locations. This 75 per cent of our ensign shows our position in the world; firmly planted in the South Pacific, under the friendly light of the Southern Cross which guided all the waves of migration to our shores. Indeed, a unifying emblem demonstrating our past, our present and our future. Recent migrants have left their countries of origin, seeking a better way of life under our flag, embracing our heritage and sharing our values of freedom, democracy and justice. They need to integrate and be grateful for the opportunities our rich and peaceful land offer, rather than demand changes to their host country.

Our current flag has been raised for 113 years. Thousands of our military people have lifted their eyes with pride at the familiar ‘Red, White and Blue’. Few people are agitating to change it. The ‘flag debate’ is a shambles, and discredited. Four of the five selected designs are variations on the fern, a common plant which is not unique to New Zealand. The ‘red peak’ is a last ditch attempt to pacify the objector. Our Prime Minister has used his various persuasive tools, such as You Tube videos, and his ability to place opinion pieces in newspapers. He is no longer an objective leader, but emotionally bound up in the process and personally involved. The entire nation has heard on many occasions that the silver fern design is what Key desires to leave as his legacy.

National symbols exist to unite people, or they are meaningless. The continuing expensive efforts to change our flag are simply a John Key ego trip which is leading to bitter and factional division. Key is also hinting at changing our beautiful and meaningful National Anthem. All this while obsequiously enjoying British royal hospitality at Buckingham Palace and wining and dining the Royal visitors at home.

As there is no place in the first round of voting to state my preference for NOT changing the flag, I intend to ‘’spoil’ my vote. Not only are flags flying above my house, but I have purchased another and filed it with my will. I will go to my grave under our familiar flag. It will be my last word on the subject of loyalty and respect for our Christian heritage and values of freedom, equality and justice which our current flag represents.

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story.  And when he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet.   Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet, and as a result he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist that takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him.  But you can’t ignore him.