Sunday, March 13, 2016

Flag referendum a diversion

New Zealand is in the middle of a referendum to replace its flag. Countries don't often change their flags and it is usually because the nation itself has gone through some profound change, like South Africa moving from apartheid to universal suffrage, which is why the proposal to change New Zealand's flag has engendered interest around the world.

I haven't taken much interest in the issue until now. I didn't vote in the first referendum to select one of five designs for a run-off against the current flag and it wasn't until I saw the final voting paper sitting on my desk that I decided I should complete the form and send it in. I voted to retain the current design, not because I particularly like it but because I like the alternative even less. It looks (as Steve Braunias in the New York Times accurately described it) like a beach towel or, in my view, like an emblem that our big dairy exporter, Fonterra, might put on one of their packets of cheese.

The proposed and the current flag designs
The problem is, the proposed design doesn't really look like a flag. Perhaps that is because flags are inherently conservative and the new design is a bit garish. More precisely, it looks amateurish, like something a graphic art student working as an intern in a design studio might come up with - the sort of design the senior partner would quietly drop into the waste paper basket on the way into the pitch to the client.

Prime Minister John Key has backed the change, expending a little from his enormous bank of political capital on the exercise. Polls indicate the change will be rejected and some commentators like Braunias have predicted that the referendum loss will knock Key's credibility. I don't think New Zealanders really care enough about the issue for it to make much of a dent in Key's popularity. The whole thing is a diversion from the worsening economic situation in New Zealand (with the Reserve Bank unexpectedly lowering interest rates last week in recognition of the relatively bleak outlook). But perhaps that was exactly what John Key intended.

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