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

Flag Referendum Post Mortum

Now that the referendum result is final, we wish to provide some thoughts.

The second flag referendum result has some interesting factors:

- That the result is surprising similar to Australia's 1999 referendum to retain the Queen as head of state; - That, although the turnout was 67%, the result was closer than most would have thought; - That the Kiwimeter polling suggests that a significant proportion of those who supported the current flag may have wanted to change the flag but didn't like the Kyle Lockwood design, which could have been the difference.

What is certain is that, since the referendum rejects the Kyle Lockwood blue and black design, that design will never get a second chance – along with the four other designs that it defeated in the first referendum.

The result suggests that the issue of the flag has not gone away. Many suggested that this country will not get a second chance in a lifetime. Certainly, if New Zealanders voted to change the flag this time, that might well be the case. Looking at Australia, the issue has gained momentum within a generation.

Changing the flag is inextricably linked to other issues. In Australia, changing the flag is linked to republicanism – an issue that hasn’t lost momentum.

In the year leading to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia held a republic referendum and there was a campaign to also change their flag. While 55 percent rejected a republic, the calls for a new flag faltered as there wasn’t a clear favourite alternative.

Less than a generation later, federal, state and territory leaders unanimously back Peter FitzSimons’ recent call for an Australian head of state. The flag debate has fired up again and alternative designs are being actively promoted, to avoid a repeat of previous campaign failures.

Replacing the Australian flag – or even removing the Union Jack canton – isn’t mandatory if Australia replaces the Queen’s constitutional role with an Australian (while obviously remaining in the Commonwealth). A flag change, however, symbolizes renewal or unique national identity and any flag campaign will aim to ride the coat tails of any republican change.

If Australia becomes a republic, no doubt the Kingdoms of New Zealand and Canada will discuss their ties with the monarchy. Many of those leading the flag change lobby here have links with the republican movement and will use the example of our big brothers across the Tasman to push for changes here.

So, if we replace our head of state, no doubt the flag change lobby will insist that changing the flag will instead be a matter of urgency.

The reality is that, if New Zealand votes to change our flag now, we are stuck with it for more than a lifetime.

Many have expressed concerns that, although they want a flag change, the Kyle Lockwood design is not good enough to replace the current flag. Some of those campaigning for a flag change have tweaked the Kyle Lockwood silver fern (to look less like an Australian Acacia) or narrowed the focus of the debate to “Union Jack versus Silver Fern.”

The problem with the flag debate has been twofold. First, it has been a standalone issue pushed by John Key and, because it is not secondary or necessary, many have tied it to other issues, like the TPPA and Key’s ego.

The standalone cost and timing of two referendums could have been absorbed into this year’s local body postal elections and next year’s general election. Any republic referendum would most likely coincide with general elections in the same way that the MMP referendums did so why not throw in the flag referendums as well?

Secondly, the choice of alternatives by the Flag Consideration Panel seemed contrived. Like Pavlov’s Dogs, Kyle Lockwood’s designs mesmerised the panel as a safe bet. The design has been around for 15 years and was the clear choice of their master.

The design, however, has been labelled “Aoteatowel” and was not the heir apparent. Some polls suggested that a well-designed simple silver fern on a black background – the de facto flag for over a century – could have given the Lockwood designs a run for its money – well, $26 million of taxpayers’ money anyway.

Kyle Lockwood said that he expected his design to go head-to-head with such a design. Because voters were never given that choice in the first referendum, the silver fern on black can continue its de facto status.

Most surprisingly, National’s caucus – the nodding heads behind Key – have ducked for cover and let their leader take the flak (along with Key’s celebrity endorsers). Instead of the flag campaign building momentum for a fourth term, it has exposed disunity, undermining and factioning whose cracks will eventually tear the party apart – a party held together by the popularity of Key.

This time around, the flag debate wasn't a wasted opportunity. It wasn't an opportunity in the first place. There just wasn't a build up of sentiment. What happened with the constitutional review that the Maori Party demanded in 2008 as part of their coalition agreement? What happened to other steps that could have built momentum?

In the end, people just thought that they were pawns in some silly political game.

It became clear to the Black & Silver team that many crucial factors necessary for a successful campaign weren't right. We decided to ride this one out and be well placed for the next time.

As Rachel Hunter once said, "It won't happen over night but it will happen." Watch this space. wink emoticon

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