The legislative schedule for his flag referendum was probably not a detail the Prime Minister checked closely. He may now be wishing he had. The deadline set for submissions on the process is tomorrow, two days before Anzac Day. The RSA finds the timing insensitive "when we all be standing there as dawn breaks under the New Zealand flag". Whoever set the closing date for submissions to Parliament's justice and electoral committee has done John Key's pet project no favours. One of the strongest arguments for retaining the time-honoured flag is that our armed forces have fought under it for so long.
There are several other arguments for keeping it, some will say enough to outweigh the case for change unless somebody comes up with a new design that catches the country's imagination. The result of the referendum will turn on whether a compelling alternative can be found. That possibility would be prevented if the select committee was to change the referendum procedure as the RSA suggests.
The Government's bill provides for two referendums, the first being a choice between four alternative designs, the second a choice between the winning alternative and the present flag. The RSA's submission to the committee suggests that if there must be a referendum on this issue, which it doubts, the first question should be, do we want to change the flag?
If that question was asked in the absence of an alternative it could almost be guaranteed to produce a resounding "no". The national flag should be changed, as we have argued in this column for some years, but is not so bad that any old alternative would be better. In fact public inertia is strong and will quite possibly prevail whatever procedure is adopted. Public opinion is naturally conservative on questions of constitutional and national symbolism. The adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" can be persuasive.
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The glaring exception to that conservative instinct was the two-stage referendum that produced MMP and the Government has obviously applied its lessons to give change a chance in the flag poll. While electoral reformers argued the previous system was "broke", and conservative voters had been deeply shaken by economic reforms, it is doubtful that change would have been adopted had a well-crafted alternative not been offered.
That experience suggests the result of the flag referendums will depend crucially on the alternatives to be proposed.
The public will be offered a selection from a number of designs shortlisted by a Government-appointed panel.
One of those designs will need to be clearly better than the rest. It will need enough of the "wow factor" to generate instant enthusiasm in many and, even then, it will face a test of time to be accepted by a majority. It is a tall order and so it should be. The flag of the British dominion has had its day for this young, independent country and culture. A new symbol deserves a fair chance.
Debate on this article is now closed.