New Zealanders and Australians are fortunate: our current prime ministers may be standard bearers for the conservative side of politics, but they are pragmatists rather than ideologues and comparatively liberal pragmatists at that.
The Aussies are probably more aware of this than we are, since their recently-deposed leader Tony Abbott was a card-carrying member of the wild-eyed, doctrinaire tendency. New Zealanders who think John Key falls into that category should cast an eye over the 17 contenders for the Republican Party's presidential nomination: even the so-called moderates make Key look like Jeremy Corbyn. The rest make Colin Craig look like Jeremy Corbyn.
Both Key and Malcolm Turnbull have embraced causes not normally associated with conservatism. One of Turnbull's first acts on becoming Prime Minister was to scrap knighthoods and damehoods, which Abbott had reinstated a year earlier, while Key has led the campaign for a new flag. Indeed, without him there'd hardly be a campaign.
But these mavericks don't stray too far from the herd. Turnbull supports the current Australian flag - if you can't picture it, imagine ours with more stars - although his position has evolved: in the 1990s he was a director of Ausflag, an organisation set up to campaign for a new flag. (When he switched sides, an Ausflag spokesman said Turnbull epitomised the saying that politics is like rowing: you can face one way and go the other.)
Key is equally contrary but the other way around. It seems axiomatic that this inconsistency has compromised his advocacy since he can't present a new flag in the wider context of a big picture, forward-looking vision of nationhood and national identity. Conspiracy theorists are probably assuring each other the quixotic flag campaign is a calculated sop to progressive opinion offended by his restoration of knighthoods.
There are three broad arguments against changing the flag. The first, of course, is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", the catch-cry of the status quo down the ages.
I guess it depends what you mean by "broke". Some would argue that a flag that makes half the world think we're still a British colony and the other half think we're a state of Australia (Tasmania without the Aussie Rules) is in dire need of fixing.
There's the argument that thousands of Kiwis died fighting for the current flag.
The vast majority of our war dead fell in "Britain's wars" - the second Boer War and World Wars I and II. We participated in those wars because we were an extension of Britain culturally, economically, psychologically and genetically: most Kiwis were either British immigrants or of recent British descent. Britain was literally the mother country. Michael Joseph Savage, the Prime Minister who took us into World War II, spelled it out: "Where Britain goes, we go."
You could therefore argue those Kiwis died fighting for the Union Jack rather than the New Zealand flag.
With the exception of the Malayan Emergency, the wars in which New Zealanders have died since 1945 were America's wars: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan. And whereas around 30,000 Kiwis were killed in Britain's wars which ended 70 years ago when this was a very different country from the one we now live in, fewer than 100 have died in the wars since. Where does it end? At what point in our history will those who fell in action in another place and time cease to have the power of veto over our flag?
The third and, one suspects, decisive argument is the one Turnbull used to justify swapping sides: there's not a compelling alternative design. This is just a mealy-mouthed formula for doing nothing forever since the nature of design is that it takes some getting used to.
Early on, Jorn Utzon's design for the Sydney Opera House was heavily criticised - a leading Australian architect derided it as resembling "an insect with a shell on its back which has crawled out from under a log" - and several years after construction began the conservative opposition won power in New South Wales by campaigning against the project. Now the Opera House is the definitive Australian icon, a far more recognisable and evocative symbol of the great southern land than its flag.
The issue with our current flag is that it represents who we were, not who we are and certainly not who we will be. With the passing of time that will only become more evident and more embarrassing.
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