Referendum good move by National in election year but neither Government nor public should choose flag.

Holding a referendum at the election about whether to change the New Zealand flag is electorally smart for National. The public debate so far seems to be more in favour than not; deep down it's an issue that makes us reflect from a sense of community about the ways we represent ourselves internationally as a nation and a culture.

It could result in many more voters going to the polls, because it's a historically significant moment that will impact on the lives of our children, grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Even people who are not normally engaged in politics may feel it's an issue worth expressing a democratic choice over. This could translate into broader feelings of satisfaction with the status quo, which means voters are less likely to want a change of government.

However if, as is being speculated, the Government will also ask voters to select from a range of designs that have already been shortlisted by Cabinet, then John Key may as well hand over the swipe cards for the 9th floor of the Beehive to David Cunliffe now. Because that would well and truly be bad policy-making as well as electoral suicide.

Why suicide? Because having to choose between already shortlisted options will result in public lobbying and emotional debate that will distract voters from the more important electoral choices they have to make in the election. If public flag preference is tracked by opinion polls, those supporting less popular options may feel their vote won't count and be completely deterred from going to the polling booth. If there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the process and with the options being presented the target of dissatisfaction will be the Government and National will be the loser. This is not mere speculation. Enough is known about voter behaviour to predict that this will happen.


Why bad policy making? Because neither Cabinet nor the general public are capable of making the best decision for New Zealand on the design of the flag of the future.

Sadly there are no artists or designers in Cabinet who are qualified to understand the purpose and power of the visual symbol as a metaphoric expression of New Zealand identity. Sure there are some who understand elements of it (Steven Joyce understands the importance of design-led innovation, Chris Finlayson is a strong advocate for culture and heritage, Judith Collins appreciates the politics of fashion design), but the design of the flag is too important to be left to former business people, farmers, lawyers and accountants.

John Key has already stated his personal preference for the silver fern on a black background. Without doubt the silver fern is stylish, and government ministers wear it proudly as a brooch on their suit lapels. But its symbolic origins derive from butter marketing and it has become commodified as an export identifier. It's also strongly associated with historic sporting success, and we are emotionally biased towards it. But are we that insecure as a nation that butter and sports marketing should form the basis for the manifestation of our future national identifier?

The design of the flag is not an economic decision. It is about what takes us forward as a nation into the next 100 years. It needs to capture the essence of us as a people while being instantly recognisable; it wants to be worn at events, should raise a tear, sit boldly and comfortably alongside, but also set us apart visually in, a sea of other nations' flags.

So why can't the people decide? It is the people's flag after all. Last week's public discussions have shown that suddenly everyone's an expert and a designer. Well I'd like to see them put a portfolio together and apply to design school. They might get a shock to find out how hard it is to get through the front door!

The general public doesn't have a role in deciding what the new design could be because it will, by its very nature, avoid extreme preferences, regress to the mean, default to the already known, and end up with the mediocre. And mediocre is the last thing we need at a time when New Zealand needs to have a strong international presence in an ever-changing global environment.

The design criteria, commissioning process, and shortlisting would best be decided by an independent expert panel comprised of our most successful designers, artists, film-makers, musicians, writers and performers. These people, more than anyone, understand the design process, the importance of the metaphor, the need to depart from the known, and how to generate new ideas to create the future. The need "to crave a different kind of buzz" helped Lorde succeed with Royals. That is what we need to capture in the new flag design.

The final decision then has to be made by someone of New Zealand but not of New Zealand; someone who bridges old and new, the past and the future, the old flag and our future flag. Ironically there's only one person who could do that and that is possibly our last royal: Prince William.