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

Flag debate now a political turf war

The Flag Consideration Panel asked for the 'expert' advice of a Nike sportshoe designer who previously designed washing machines, writes Grant McLachlan.

When Bill English said that social media had a huge role in the choice of the final four flag designs, he undermined his integrity and that of the Flag Consideration Panel.

The most fundamental rule in politics is to not start a fight you can lose.

Bill English learned this lesson the hard way. In National's worst ever election result in 2002, Bill English volunteered for the 'Fight for Life,' got hammered in the ring and then at the polls.

In the fallout, newly-elected MP John Key attended campaign review meetings throughout the country. The major concern of campaign committees was that they were 'flying blind' - they couldn't get media traction and they couldn't connect directly with potential supporters.

What National has done since 2002 is develop the most advanced voter relationship database to collect information and then target potential supporters.

Every phone call to an electorate office, every letter to the editor, letter to a minister, comment on social media, photo opportunity, or attendance at an event or meeting, - there is someone inputting that data into National's central database. David Farrar, National's pollster, monitors the data, then themes and phrases are tested in focus groups before John Key utters them.

If data is gold to a politician then the flag debate is the jackpot. Here is a simple issue where most people have an opinion and have expressed it. On Facebook, where most people use their real names, all comments and shares can be monitored, analysed, and categorised. In the blogosphere, commenters' physical location (aka IP address) is traceable.

Politics is murky and intelligence on potential supporters is key. Right wing blogger Cameron Slater got hold of Labour's donor and membership database and subscriber information from a left-wing rival's blog.

The flag debate encroaches on traditionally Labour territory. Every Labour leader since Peter Fraser wanted to change the flag. Considering National's repeated incursions to the left, it is not surprising that Andrew Little is trying to galvanise his core support by opposing the $26 million cost of the flag process.

Getting people on the political bandwagon is about maintaining waves of momentum. For something to go 'viral,' there needs to be a combination of 'pushers' and 'pullers.' Pushers are political cronies and opinion leaders willing to pick up a ball, run with it and fend off attacks. Pullers are fair-weather celebrities who put their name behind an issue only if someone has their back and if there is sufficient forward momentum.

National has several levels within its organisation that try to sway public opinion. Groups target talkback radio, social media, surveys, and media polls. Crony commentators manipulate, obfuscate, smear, and stigmatise.

When Bill English announced the Flag Consideration Panel months ago, he stressed that the process will be independent, fair and transparent. The panel would make the best decisions based on the best advice from experts.

That hasn't happened. By admitting that social media was instrumental, English has admitted that the panel was vulnerable to National's own campaigning machine.

The panel has substituted quality with celebrity, expertise with soundbites, style with memes, and qualitative research with unscientific polls.

According to official documents released to me yesterday, the panel didn't consult the advice of any vexillologists. Instead, they asked for the 'expert' advice of a Nike sportshoe designer who previously designed washing machines.

The International Congress of Vexillology met in Sydney on the same day of the final four flag design announcement in Wellington. When leading flag experts were asked what they thought of the four designs, they were underwhelmed. One even suggested that the designs weren't flags at all.

The quality of decision-making is so compromised that design guru Mike Hutcheson described the choice between the four designs to be like "choosing the tallest dwarf."

National's pollsters are so concerned about losing the flag debate, that John Key has changed his design preference twice. The result: three of the four designs feature elements of his three different positions.

If social media influenced decisions, that makes the whole process not only unreasonable but legally vulnerable. Any bench of judges reviewing the panel's decision would have a field day.

When Canada's cross-party special flag committee chose a flag, it was unanimous. The design, which was based on the flag of their military college, neutralised opposition from their veteran's legion and unified the nation.

In New Zealand, instead of the flag debate being a unifying exercise, it has become divisive. Even the flags look divisive, featuring aspects of the Labour and National party logos.

When the RSA requested taxpayer money to campaign against changing the flag, Key realised that his main opposition was weak and refused to help them. I predict that the RSA will now be the target of crony smear tactics.

John Key knew from the start that his flag crusade was not a vote winner and would corrode his political capital. If he isn't careful, he will get hammered in a fight that he started and then get knocked out at the next election.


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