Voting is now open in the second of New Zealand’s referenda to determine whether or not to adopt a new national flag. A recent opinion poll suggests that the change is likely to be voted down: almost 60% of those surveyed support the current flag, and a substantial percentage of those in favour of change do not support the proposed alternative –selected out of a field of 5 candidate designs in an initial referendum. It’s an unusually participatory democratic process – when Canada adopted its new maple leaf flag in 1964, a parliamentary committee and the House of Commons made the decision.
Despite the referendum process in New Zealand, and despite the indisputable and confusing similarity between the current New Zealand and Australian flags, there has been continual opposition to the new flag project from the beginning: to the finalist designs, the alternative selected, and to the very process itself. Some opposition is not surprising. Veterans opposed the new flag in Canada in 1964, and in New Zealand the Returned Services Association has also argued that to change the flag is disrespectful of those who fought and died under it.
However what’s really striking is the degree to which attitudes to the issue break down along party lines. The recent poll showed that while National Party voters are divided fairly evenly on whether to change the flag, opposition voters overwhelmingly oppose change. This reflects support for a party position which must be reassuring at least to the main opposition parties: the Labour Party, which promised to review the flag during the 2014 election campaign, has opposed the referenda on the grounds that voters should first have been asked whether or not they wanted change, while Green Party leaders have expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the proposed alternative. There has been consistent criticism in the media and social media of the cost of the process – around NZ$26 million.
Prime Minister Key has complained about the politicization of the flag debate by his opponents, but his own record on the importance of a distinctive national identity for New Zealand, which breaks with the imperial past is inconsistent at best. In 2009, he reintroduced the titles Knight and Dame for the two highest levels of the New Zealand Order of Merit – titles abolished by Helen Clark’s government in 2000. Key’s move was relatively uncontroversial – in Australia, by contrast, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision in 2014 to reintroduce the titles was widely derided and revoked when he was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull the following year. Moreover, when qualified recipients of the Order of Merit in New Zealand were permitted to take the titles of Knight and Dame retrospectively, the great majority did so.
This suggests that there is less popular enthusiasm for symbolic breaking with the imperial past in New Zealand than elsewhere in the Commonwealth. But much of the opposition to the flag suggests a deep-seated popular anxiety about breaks with New Zealand’s historical sense of its national identity more broadly. Critics of the proposed new flag compare it on social media to a beach-towel and a tea-towel, and describe it as garish and commercial – an advertisement for the nation abroad, rather than a symbol of its historically-embedded identity. That historical identity is associated with more than service in foreign wars. New Zealanders’ understanding of the responsibilities owed between the state, society and citizens in their country has fundamentally changed since the neoliberal economic changes of the 1980s, and that change has produced anxiety about the loss of a historical model of mutual care and obligation. Anxiety about the replacement of community and solidarity in New Zealand by a rhetoric of individualism and entrepreneurship has been consistently expressed in opinion polls.
This period has also seen the aggressive promotion and marketing of New Zealand as a distinctive national brand, begun by the Clark Labour government, and continued by the Nationals under Key. Sport and culture have been conscripted into this marketing process as, with some resistance, have Maori cultural practices and symbols. New Zealanders have by-and-large signed on to that branding, expressed in their enthusiasm for the All Blacks rugby team, but the response to the flag debate suggests that when national marketing is combined with a rejection of the past, it unites people across the lines of predictable social cleavage – drawing together progressives with traditionalists. Not surprisingly, prominent former All Blacks who support the flag change have attracted particularly vitriolic criticism.
It’s this fear that a substantive history and identity have been replaced by branding that drives the anti-new flag movement, underlying criticism of the particular design, or the cost of the referenda. A complaint often made, particularly by progressives and liberals, is that the $26 million spent on the new flag project could have been better spent. In fact, a participatory democratic process doesn’t come cheap, and other National spending priorities are easy to criticize. The real issue is that citizens have been at best ambivalent about the neoliberal juggernaught that has reshaped New Zealand over the past 30 years, most recently expressed in the TPPA. But given the chance, as they have been in the flag referenda, it’s not surprising that they seem to be putting their foot down.
Katherine Smits is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Auckland, where she researches and teaches in political theory, social justice, and nationalism. For more information on her research in this area see The Neoliberal State and the Uses of Indigenous Culture in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics (2014).