The flag process reached its zenith with olive branches at dawn in Parliament this week. At issue was the Red Peak flag and belated efforts to have it installed on the shortlist.

This has put Prime Minister John Key into a bit of a pickle. There is finally some of that much-hoped-for public engagement in the flag process and he cannot afford to dismiss it - but to act on it would require him to override the Flag Panel he had made so much of.

Labour's Andrew Little was also in a pickle. He did not want to help get Key out of his pickle but, having called for Red Peak to be included himself, nor could he then turn around and oppose measures to allow that to happen. Added to that, Labour had criticised the flag process from day one and did not want to lose face by buying into it now.

In an attempt to look as if they were both trying to be constructive, the olive branches were ordered. Little offered to meet. Key offered cups of tea.


Alas, instead of handing them over graciously they started slapping each other about the chops with them.

Both Key and Little have accused each other of playing politics on the issue. It would take something even more complicated than the Duckworth-Lewis system to calculate who is playing politics more.

Having previously ruled out Red Peak, Key cunningly offered to make the law change needed to add the design, but only if Labour would support it. Labour blundered right into it.

Given its existing support for a flag change policy, Labour was on dangerous turf with its sabotage attempts from the beginning. That lurched into landmine territory over Red Peak.

Little had already called for Red Peak to be included. He even said he might vote in the referendum if Red Peak was there. Of course, at that point Little thought he was safe in the knowledge Key would never move to override the Flag Panel by adding Red Peak. Now he was backed into the corner, Little's response was that Labour would support it, but only if Key also changed the order of the referendums so voters were first asked whether the flag should change. This time round, he could be certain Key would never accept that condition.

Little may have thought this put the ball back in Key's court. Alas, it rebounded. It was now Labour which stood accused of blocking the inclusion of Red Peak by holding it to ransom for political ends.

Labour is now in damage control trying to deflect that. So Jacinda Ardern turned up at the handover of a petition on Red Peak and denied Labour was to blame for the roadblock. She suggested National could act off its own bat by simply taking one flag out and adding Red Peak - something that could be done at the whim of the Cabinet rather than through a law change. That would be Labour's dream scenario, not least because it would allow them to bludgeon Key with it as further evidence of a shambolic process. That is exactly why Key has refused to take that step.

Labour is now back trying to call Key's bluff - and may well have succeeded. After Key said there was no point meeting Little unless Labour dropped its insistence on changing the referendum questions, Little released the letter he sent to Key. It was not the most benign letter, beginning with a diatribe about the need to change the order of questions and the lack of public confidence in the flag process. But it did end with an assurance he was open to dropping his condition if other measures could be agreed on.


There are some bright spots. Australian media have had great sport poking fun at our flag issues. But there are now even bigger laughing stocks around. Australia has changed Prime Ministers so often in the past six years there is suspicion it is method-acting as some tinpot democracy.

When Little was asked if the flag stoush was making New Zealand look a fool, he said not compared to Australia. Even Key rather undiplomatically pointed out that the only other country in which the prime ministership was so unstable was Vanuatu.

So this week let us take some solace in the fact we are not Australia, no matter how similar our flags are.