Faced with an organized, government-backed effort to replace the national flag, the voters declined. And they did so decisively, by a margin of almost 14 percentage points.
The purported problem with the flag was the presence of the Union Jack in the top inner corner (canton). To critics, this was an inappropriate and outdated symbol of New Zealand’s erstwhile colonial past and thus not in keeping with modern concepts of multiculturalism, diversity and so forth.
It was also considered too similar in appearance to Australia’s flag, so had the potential to create confusion abroad.
Changing New Zealand’s flag isn’t a new topic, having been raised on several occasions over the last 40 or so years. This time, though, the primary sponsor was the prime minister, so the process was duly elaborate.
An inclusive panel – chaired by a respected academic and balanced along the usual lines of age, gender, geography and ethnicity – sought public input to come up with a shortlist of four new designs. When a protest social media campaign lobbied for a fifth alternative, it was added to the list, which was then put to a public vote.
Balloting was on a preferential basis: voters identified first, second, third and fourth choices. After each count, the lowest polling design was dropped and its votes distributed as per indicated preference. Eventually, after four counts, one design accumulated the requisite 50 percent plus and was declared the winner.
This set the stage for the second referendum, pitting the existing flag against the winning replacement candidate. It was tradition against modernity. The flag incorporating the Union Jack went up against the flag that substituted a silver fern, a plant species endemic to New Zealand and widely recognized as a national symbol.
And the result wasn’t even close. On a voter turnout in excess of 67 percent, the traditional flag won by almost 14 points.
For many among the political and media classes, this was a significant disappointment, even a source of puzzlement. How could voters not see things the right way? How could they opt for a colonial symbol rather than one emblematic of modern, independent New Zealand?
Perhaps the answer is that the country’s history fits comfortably with the majority of its people. New Zealand’s origins, after all, are as a British colony. And from the 19th century to relatively modern times, the bulk of its immigrants came from the British Isles.
Further, there was no struggle for independence, violent or otherwise. So the Union Jack on the flag isn’t a symbol of historic subjugation but rather an emblem of the nation’s past, a benign reminder of where it has come from.
If any population segment resented the Union Jack’s presence it should have been the Maori, who migrated to New Zealand from Polynesia 500 to 600 years before the arrival of the British. But the Maori vote was even more pronounced, running at almost 75 percent in favour of retaining the traditional flag!
Prof. Paul Moon from the Auckland University of Technology may have hit the nail on the head when he described the attempt to change the flag as “amputating” New Zealand’s history. As he put it, “the premise that we change our flag as our identity evolves is inherently flawed. Flags, like our names, remain with us as we mature and are the sum total of our existence.”
Canadians, of course, will recognize this phenomenon of cleavage between elite and popular opinion.
For instance, our 1992 referendum on the constitutional amendments embodied in the Charlottetown Accord saw virtually the entire political class, most of the media and various interest groups line up in favour. The very existence of the country, we were told, might well be in jeopardy if we didn’t vote Yes. But we voted No and Canada survived.
The lesson is simple. Elite opinion and popular opinion aren’t necessarily the same thing. And just because a point of view is all over the media doesn’t mean we have to bend the knee to it. We should never forget that.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.