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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

Taking a leaf from Canada's flag debate

Will we get a political doodle for a flag, a celebrity-driven choice, or a timeless icon, asks Grant McLachlan.

New Zealand appears to be repeating what happened in Canada 50 years ago when Canada chose a new flag. But I doubt we will end up with a new national icon.

In Canada during 1964, initial designs proposed by a "special flag committee" were rejected. Canadians had submitted 3541 designs. Of those, 2136 contained the maple leaf (their silver fern), 408 contained Union Jacks, 389 contained beavers (their Kiwi), and 359 contained Fleurs-de-lys (their Koru/Southern Cross).

The committee recommended a design incorporating the maple leaf, Union Jack and the Fleurs-de-lys. One politician called it, "a platypus designed by committee".

Canada's popular opinion was as fickle as ours. It went from being strongly in favour of a flag change to being strongly against when their Prime Minister announced the process to consider alternatives.

After the committee announced its preferred design, Prime Minister Pearson beavered away in the background for a red, white and blue flag with three maple leafs on a white background flanked by blue pales.

The "Great Canadian Flag Debate" was vicious. There were riots, vitriolic letters to editors, and the Royal Canadian Legion (Canada's RSA) mobilised boisterous opposition. In New Zealand, we have seen the same, with social media being the main avenue to vent.

The design eventually chosen, based on the Royal Military College of Canada's flag, was a last-minute submission by George Stanley who had earlier provided a memorandum giving a detailed history of Canada's emblems, traditions, and vexillology - something the debate up to that point lacked. He also warned that designs must "avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature".

After considerable political manoeuvring, the final decision by the cross-party special committee surprised everyone - 15-0 vote in favour of Stanley's design.

The rest is history. Canada's flag is so popular their simple iconic flag has its own national day.

In New Zealand we find ourselves in a similar bind. The greatest problem here is that the process is political, regardless of how hard John Key tries to make it appear independent. The Flag Consideration Panel are technically advisers in his department, much like his spin doctors.

Key's inconsistent public comments are the result of internal party rumblings. His original "doodle" was a silver fern on a black flag. He then strangely surrendered his support for a black flag due to Isis also having one.

Key surrendered our national colours to terrorists.

What I suspect really happened was that the National Party hierarchy protested at the removal of the Southern Cross from the flag, which appears on their party logo, at the expense of a silver fern, which appears on Labour's. The greatest flaw in the process is that, of the 40 flag designs selected by the Flag Consideration Panel, only a handful meet the criteria of their design guide and their video describing "What makes a good flag design."

Of major concern is the disproportionate inclusion of new and racially-based symbols in the long-list. More than half of the long-list contain uniquely Maori symbols, while only half that number contain the universally recognisable and iconic silver fern.

That contradicts the panel's aim for a flag to be "timeless" that "should speak to all Kiwis". Some of the designs are just unreasonable and irrelevant.

Those in the "change the flag" camp have had to ride the political rollercoaster since National came to power. More recently, with the flag consideration process, they have had to endure the unpredictability of consensus decision making.

Kyle Lockwood - who has five designs in the long-list - submitted many slightly different "platypus" designs as insurance against missing out. Overall, 628 entries contained Kyle's designs.

Several popular designs by long-time campaigners did not make the long-list, including John Ansell's classic silver fern on a black field.

The one thing the panel said must be done is due diligence on those designs they have long-listed. The panel clearly hasn't done basic homework when several long-listed designs are licensed trademarks, according to their campaign and company websites.

One licensed silver fern selected even appears as the Intellectual Property Office logo.

One also has to ask what happens now? Are they going to rely on celebrity endorsements to guide their selection of the final four?Are they abandoning the goal of a timeless icon for something topical and trendy?

Under the New Zealand Flag Referendums Bill, any group of 200 can challenge the conduct of the referendum if it "could have altered the outcome of the referendum". So, if an excluded design gains popular support, a High Court judge may rule that it be considered as an option in the first referendum. I expect the flag debate to go from the silly and nasty to celebrity-driven and murky.

Here are my predictions:

  • One of the final four designs will be redesigned by the panel.

  • The campaigning machines of the major political parties will get involved.

  • We will see fiddling of the dates for the first referendum based on the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup performance.

  • The second referendum will be timed so as to not be influenced by Anzac Day next year, which Cabinet documents reveal is a major concern.

Will we get a celebrity-driven platypus for a flag, a political doodle, or something iconic and timeless like Canada's? Key now favours a platypus of the Southern Cross, the silver fern, and the colours black and blue. Where is a George Stanley when we need him?

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