Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Time to flag the bitterness of debate

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In simple terms now we should vote for the flag we like the most — or dislike the least.

At last the Great New Zealand Flag-Off has entered the final furlong, with voting in the second referendum starting today.

And, apart from the failure to put a designer on the consideration panel, the near-empty rooms at public consultations, the mockery from international media, the decision not to listen to public views after the longlist of 40 was published, the release of a shortlist with three out of the four dominated by a fern and two of them almost identical, the law change to introduce a fifth contender, the flying of the wrong alternative flag on the harbour bridge, the accusations of distraction and legacy fixation, the interminable demands that the $26 million budget might have been better spent on this or that, the swivel-eyed conspiracy theories and moronic Facebook memes, the objectionable attacks on public figures who express a view, the point-scoring, the politicising, the claims of politicising that really just amounted themselves to politicising, the general bickering, peevishness and name-calling - apart from that, it's all gone swimmingly.

Still, the course of flag love never did run smooth; it could be that all the turbulence is a good omen. In Canada and South Africa, remember, the changing of the flag was full of mishap, muddle and animus, too.

If the polls are right and we stick with the current design, maybe we'll have another bash and do it better in 10 or 20 years.

If the polls are wrong, and the Lockwood design sneaks through, maybe those of us who today squint at the sight of it will grow to like it over time. You never know.

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Promises of "robust debates" and "public conversations", however well intentioned, tend usually to produce either tumbleweed or rancour. But this one has felt worse than most. If filling out one of those intermediate-school sheets the Flag Panel distributed, asking "What do we stand for?", on the basis of the debate, I'd write simply: "Adolescent squabbling."

I can't help but wonder if some of the vileness, on both sides, in the flag debate stems from the essential shallowness of the debate. "Let's have a big discussion about nationhood and what it means!"

Great, you mean, for example, should we revisit our unusual constitutional status? "No, God no, not that! A big discussion about nationhood but just not that bit. Carry on!" The inevitable, almost intrinsic, superficiality gave rise to an argument that became a proxy for all sorts of other beefs and agendas: a baffling great symbolic soup.

In hindsight, it was probably inevitable that the debate was going to become a lightning rod of anti-Key sentiment for the PM's most zealous enemies. Inevitable, but daft. To vote against the Lockwood alternative because you don't like John Key is, I think, as daft as imputing Key-loathing on the part of anyone who simply doesn't like the alternative flag.

One more daft thing, while we're at it: the argument that declining to vote against the Union-Jacked incumbent now is to kiss goodbye the opportunity to change forever. It may not happen again for some years, but moods change like tides; who's to say it won't return to the fore in, say, 2025 or 2040? Were that to happen as part of a debate on our constitutional status, all the better.

Key reckons that sticking with the status quo will mean no new flag without becoming a republic. But, however charming William and Kate and their children might be, a republican shift is not nearly as implausible as he implies. Key also said, a few years back, that New Zealand becoming a republic was "inevitable".

The real political risk for Key in pushing for a flag change was never the hardcore antagonists wanting to give him a bloody nose.

As he pointed out this week, his advocacy does not appear to have hurt his personal poll rating. What could have hurt, however, would have been a vocal keep-the-historic-flag voice from within the ranks.

Just look, by way of contrast, at the other side of the world, where Key's friend and centre-right counterpart David Cameron is having a miserable time making a case for Britain to stay in the European Union ahead of their own, albeit miles more important, referendum.

Last week Boris Johnson, the Old Etonian, faux-baffled, bicycle-mounted mayor of London and Tory MP, revealed that he would campaign for an Out vote.

This wasn't about Cameron, no, no, no, of course not. It was about principle and not for a minute motivated by long-held ambitions of becoming prime minister himself.

That no National MP with sights on the leadership has done anything remotely similar - and there are plenty of conservative-minded senior caucus members who strongly prefer the incumbent, thank you very much - just shows how solid Key's position is. The fealty runs deep.

In the meantime, as those orange-flecked envelopes land in mailboxes, my outlandishly radical advice, for what it's worth and at risk of stating the bleeding obvious, is to vote for the flag you like the best, or dislike the least.

On this, I'm firmly with the Prime Minister. The other day he told breakfast TV viewers that New Zealanders should "make the call on what they believe - if they like it they should vote for it, and if they don't, they shouldn't". That pretty much covers it.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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