Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand wants a new flag. What to do? What to do? What to do? Did he stitch up the public and suggest a conscience vote in Parliament, despite not having signalled this before the election in the party’s manifesto? No! (Note, however, that that hypothetical ‘end run around the voters’ option would be an exact parallel to what some in the Liberal Party here in Australia have been pushing as regards the issue of same sex marriage – ‘we don’t need to signal this would be a conscience vote before the election we can just call it that now and soon it’ll be Bob’s your Wife’. Disclaimer: I’ll be voting ‘yes’ in the plebiscite but I detest the dishonesty and cheating involved in running the ‘conscience vote’ pseudo-argument.)
Where was I? Ah yes, Mr Key’s desire for a new flag across the Tasman. The Kiwi PM thinks there’s too much Union Jack in the New Zealand flag, not to mention that it’s too like the Australian flag in his view. The symbolism is all wrong. ‘New Zealand needs a groovy new symbol that’s innovative and exciting as this is the best time to be alive in this country’, goes his thinking. Hang on, wrong Prime Minister. Sorry. I was channelling Mr Turnbull there for a moment.
No, the interesting thing is that Mr Key is himself in favour of the status quo monarchy; he has said that a republic ‘will not happen on his watch’; though he’s also said that he thinks that at some point in the future it’s likely to happen. Those are his thoughts and words. As for Mr Key’s actions, he makes Tony Abbott look like a French Revolutionary. How so? Well, one of the early things that Mr Key did after first winning office is to change the country’s honour system.
There had been a ‘New Zealand Order of Merit’, much like our ‘Order of Australia’ with the little pins that holders stick in their lapels as a sort of ‘who’s in the know’ secret handshake genuflection in the direction of hierarchy. Mr Key turned it back into knighthoods. Not just for Prince Philip. He changed it for everyone. NZ Orders of Merit are gone and knighthoods are the top gong you get in New Zealand today.
But here’s the delightful, and politically lethal thing that Mr Key did and that Mr Abbott fumbled. Prime Minister Key made the switch optionally retrospective.
Anyone with a NZ Order of Merit could switch to a ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’. However the offer was time-limited. My God it was immensely enjoyable to watch all the lefty republicans as most of them took up the option of a knighthood while coming up with absurd and self-serving excuses. ‘I’m not taking the knighthood for myself, you understand my good man, but for all the little people who helped me get where I am and who would want me to take up this offer because of its greater prestige in world terms’. Etcetera and so on in myriad permutations.
Yes, the hypocrisy was puke-inducing. But it took all the criticism out of the move back to knighthoods virtually overnight. And remember, it is now the normal, usual top honour over in New Zealand, not some ‘two people a year’ idiocy. Mr Key understood that you stuff it down their throats, or you don’t do it at all.
Anyway, this is the man who wants a new flag. So you can see it’s more complicated than serving as some sort of ‘move to a republic’ proxy that you’d see here in Australia with all the usual FitzSimons/ Turnbull versus Howard/Flint predictability that would entail. (Second disclaimer: I am a strong constitutional monarchist for no emotional reasons whatsoever but simply because the status quo works exceptionally well and no imaginable republican ‘innovation’ will work nearly as well – the ‘symbolism’ argument leaving me colder than a nudist in Winnipeg on any day in February.)
Which takes us to the flag referendum across the Tasman. Now many of you will know that New Zealand has no written constitution. It is the world’s best example of parliamentary sovereignty, and will remain so until my hope is fulfilled and the Brits vote to leave the democracy-diminishing European Union and regain that title for themselves. But the point is that this referendum was not a constitutionally forced one. It was conceived as the proper way to decide what voters want, not unlike the way that Ireland resolved the same-sex marriage issue, but wholly and completely unlike the disgraceful way in which 5 of 9 top judges did so in the United States (and in Canada too for that matter).
Late last year a bevy of new flag designs were put to the voters in a first referendum that used preferential voting, a novelty for the Kiwis. The winning design did not actually win in terms of first preferences. It came second but snuck across the line on second preferences. It is black and blue with a white fern and four red stars doing the southern cross thingy. Mr Key purports to love it. He wants Kiwis to vote for it.
And voting is what they’re doing as you read this. The referendum is taking the form of a postal vote, between March 3rd and 24th. You pick between the existing flag or this black and blue and starry red alternative that triumphed in the first referendum.
So what will it be? Well, the polls do not augur well for Mr Key because they all point to a win for the status quo. Sure, we may end up being surprised, because the Kiwi PM is trying to throw as many Kiwi big names into the debate on his side as he can find. (And yes, apparently there are Kiwi celebrities, not all of whom followed Russell Crowe and moved over here to Oz when they were kids. Plus, and I mean this deadly seriously, pavlova was first created in New Zealand. That’s a fact you learn when living across the Tasman.)
Anyway, all you Aussies who hope that something, anything, might help trigger a bit of momentum for the republican cause – and I concede that The Speccie may not automatically be your house journal – had better get ready for a bit of disappointment. It’s looking as though the Kiwis are going to disappoint you and keep their flag, Union Jack with its many historical connotations and all.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at Queensland University and regular columnist