Labour's leader has done himself no good this week with his refusal to back legislation putting "Red Peak" into the flag referendum.

The Prime Minister has not covered himself in glory, either, with his needless bid to rope Labour into his project. But at least John Key had a twinkle in his eye when he did an about-face on Red Peak, offering to add it to the options if all other parties (except New Zealand First) agreed. Andrew Little, caught by surprise, resorted to a counter-offer he knew could not be accepted.

Labour would agree, he said, if the first referendum included the question: "Do you want to change the flag, yes or no?". This proposition became tiresome long ago. People cannot sensibly consider a change of this kind without knowing what the alternative would be. We probably would not have adopted MMP if the 1992 referendum had asked, do you want to change the electoral system? Several different systems were under public discussion at that time and all had their advocates.

But many who voted for MMP, or another new system, might have voted for the status quo in fear of a change to one of the systems they did not like. A referendum without a known alternative is biased to the status quo and those who call for one know it. The call is perfectly understandable from the likes of the RSA which wants to keep the existing flag regardless of alternatives on offer. It declared its position before any alternatives were drawn and it has stuck to it.

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Labour's position has never been as clear. In principle, the party seems open to a change of flag but by insisting on a yes/no referendum, Mr Little puts that position in doubt, for he knows "no" would win. He sounded flustered when Mr Key's offer was put to him by reporters and later complained that he would have expected some notice from the Prime Minister if the offer was serious. The offer was clearly mischievous; the Government does not need Labour's votes to add Red Peak to the referendum. But it tested Mr Little's agility.

John Key comments on the New Zealand flag debate.

The flag change is not going well for Mr Key. The four options chosen by his Flag Consideration Panel for the first referendum do not appear to satisfy enough people and one of its rejected designs, Red Peak, has attracted a belated social media bandwagon. Mr Key, who wants a silver fern on the flag, was too quick last week to rule out a late inclusion of Red Peak in the referendum.

By Monday he had changed his mind, and made his offer to "other parties". If Labour and the Greens wanted Red Peak he was happy to oblige. Mr Key probably does not rate Red Peak's chances highly and if the first referendum becomes a contest between one of "his" ferns and the "Opposition's" Red Peak, he might yet salvage a small victory from an exercise that probably will end in failure.

With or without other parties' support, Red Peak should be in the first ballot. The only question is whether it replaces one of the panel's four or becomes a fifth option, requiring legislation. Two of the existing four appear to have no hope and the other two are almost the same. A fifth would be fun. Mr Little should lighten up and enjoy the political games.

Debate on this article is now closed.