Monday, March 21, 2016

Karl du Fresne: I barely recognise my fellow New Zealanders

In his best-selling 1976 book The Passionless People, journalist Gordon McLauchlan famously called his fellow New Zealanders smiling zombies – basically decent, but smug and complacent.

I wonder what he makes of the extraordinary kerfuffle over the flag.

Every so often in New Zealand, an issue comes up that seems to rouse us from our inertia. It happened in 1981 when the Springboks came and it’s happened again, albeit without the flour bombs and Minto bars (the affectionate name given to the long  batons wielded in 1981 by the police), over the past few weeks.
The flag debate has exposed an ornery, cranky streak in the national character.  I keep waiting for the tumult to abate, but the letters to the editor keep coming and the radio talkback lines continue to run hot.
Who could honestly say they saw all this rage and fury coming? I bet John Key didn’t.  
He probably thought this was his best shot at making history – the one potentially memorable act of a political career otherwise defined by carefully calculated pragmatism in the finest National Party tradition.
What he surely couldn’t have imagined was that the flag referendum would lift the lid on a seething, boiling, often contradictory mess of emotions, some of which are only tenuously connected with the flag.
I barely recognise my fellow New Zealanders. McLauchlan probably doesn’t either. 
We’re normally a stolid, easy-going lot, but the referendum has ignited unexpectedly intense passions encompassing wildly conflicting notions of nationhood, identity, culture and history.
The problem, for those who make it their business to understand such phenomena, is that it’s impossible to detect any particular pattern in the rage. We’re all over the place. 
For some, the vote on the flag is a referendum on Key. Regardless of how much they might like the idea of a new flag, it’s an irresistible chance to inflict a damaging blow on a prime minister whose imperturbable blandness is almost as maddening to them as his popularity.
For others, the debate is all about our British heritage. They see the alternative silver fern design as a denial of who we are and all that we’ve gained as a result of Britain’s civilising influence.
Other traditionalists have convinced themselves that New Zealand soldiers died fighting for the current flag and that to change it would dishonour their memory.
Then there are those – let’s call them the anti-beach towel camp – who are favourably disposed toward a change of flag but withering in their contempt for the Kyle Lockwood design. For them, it’s largely about aesthetics.
Oh, and I almost forgot those who  complain bitterly about the cost, although the same objection - "a scandalous waste of money!" - could be applied to any vaguely contentious government initiative.
Good luck to anyone trying to find a common thread here. As I wrote in a column last year, there are four and a half million New Zealanders and four and a half million opinions on the flag.
Not only does everyone have their own idea about what the flag should look like, but many can’t understand why other people don’t agree with them. This translates into a cantankerous, one-eyed intolerance that is strikingly at odds with our reputation as easy-going people.
What’s clear is that there will never be a consensus. Whatever the flag design, some people are bound to hate it. It follows that arguments about the flag are doomed to go around in circles, which is pretty much what’s been happening over the past few weeks. 
This is one instance in which the democratic process turns out to be imperfect. It can be a prescription for permanent paralysis.
If the referendum results in a “no” vote, as seems likely, we’ll either be stuck with the present flag in perpetuity, or a new one will have to be imposed on us. 
Actually, that mightn’t be so bad. Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson championed a change of flag against intense opposition in 1964. The people had no direct say. But Canadians are happy with the unique and distinctive maple-leaf flag that resulted, and who knows – perhaps New Zealanders could eventually learn to love the Lockwood flag too.
Is it the best possible design? Of course not. There can be no best possible design, because that’s a subjective judgment. (In any case, it could only be the best possible design until someone comes up with a better one.) But I don’t think it looks like a beach towel. 
And despite what the jaundiced critics and Key-haters say, the selection process was impeccably democratic. It just delivered a slightly weird outcome.
Now it’s down to us, the voters. If we genuinely believe in democracy, we’ll graciously accept the result whatever it is. 
And if we end up opting for the status quo, it won’t have been a complete waste of time. If nothing else, the debate has shown that we’re a more devoutly patriotic lot than we thought, and not quite as passionless as McLauchlan supposed.  
Karl du Fresne blogs at First published in the Dominion Post.


Anonymous said...

“the selection process was impeccably democratic “ unquote

We were not asked if we wanted change, were told to make a choice – impeccably democratic????

paul scott said...

Dave Farrar over at Kiwiblog is maintaining a silence resembling stupidity on this subject.
That is because Curia polls tell him that his boss is going to take the biggest thrashing of his political life. And that is why Key was seen at the Arrowtown golf course draped inside the NZ flag..
Unlike all that secret mudslinging at the general elections 2014, when nobody cared; this time people see right through the cynical devious and dishonest self aggrandisement flag program. We can tell the difference between a flag and the bath towel with a pink or white fern thing fluffing it up.
And we see that the bath towel thing circumvented a good thorough democratic process.
It was rushed, devious and manipulative.
As Karl has noticed, your friends of 25 years have suddenly take up arms.
The Country is divided, it’s the dangerous dinner party topic and Key managed this all by himself.
An example . One of my best friends arrives at the doorstep the other day from Invercargill. He is completely apolitical.
I could not stop him raving about the absurdity of taking votes from the red Lockwood flag and giving them to the black Lockwood flag.
He was especially riled that no one seemed to know much about his new enemy ‘Preferential transferred votes' and he was not impressed when I told him that transferred voting brings strange results…
This is similar to the emergence of something like the 'Sports party' in the Senate of Australia after having had votes transferred from a low starting point.
In other words the preferential absurdity for a meaningless position which has few enough votes against it.
And that is how we arrived at the fluffy basketball flag.
And that is why Key is going to take a thrashing.
For Karl to say that “the selection process was impeccably democratic’ is blindingly blind. Read the criticisms of the process properly Karl .
Read the Hindi and foreign language invitations to ‘vote for the new flag'
Consider the backwards way of slanting this voting for the new flag first and then again voting for it a second time.
By all cynical purpose this mechanism should have worked, but the back fire from this musket shot will be Keys nightmare bad memory.
This is not democracy or anything like it. That’s what the “kerfuffle” is about
Unbelievably Karl says “If we genuinely believe in democracy, we’ll graciously accept the result whatever it is.”
I don’t think so, but it gets even worse. Quote “A new one [ flag] will have to be imposed on us". That is not democracy either Karl, and it is not the best thing at all.
I vote centre right. Last time Conservative , this next time NZ First.

Anonymous said...

Key was quoted on TV as stating that the way the referendum was conducted was "world class". Banana republic-class, more like it. A continuous string of maneouvres that were unethical and probably illegal in most other democracies.

Duncan said...

What an astonishing level of confusion in this flag debate! The only possible outcome, given this reality, has been achieved. No change.

However here's my observation. The National Government has silenced a debate about a flag change for many years. No politician with a modicum of commonsense would dare raise the subject until the memories of the past few months fade into the mist.

Meanwhile sleep safe under the Union Jack and the Southern Cross

Bob Culver said...

What irked me was the lack of advocacy for the existing. Incredibly it survived despite this. Nearly every sports or media personality, editor, columnist gave their preference for the new. Some gave various justifications. No one and certainly not the FCP, attempted a balance with a rigorous presentation of the case for retention. Most went with what they thought was the populist sentiment, good for future business. I suspect many of the public sensed they were being manipulated. Able writers with a reasonable knowledge of history could make a very compelling case for retention. But such persons are not in the media. If anyone had mounted a serious campaign for the existing it would likely have flown in with a much larger majority. But such is hard work and there was no commercial incentive to do so.

Anonymous said...

We now know the outcome of this challenge to our history. The only democratic principle on this saga was that we had the opportunity to vote on the topic and as a country we responded to the challenge. Don't get me wrong, I am not against change but only for the better and this certainly wasn't the case. The change to our identity was literally rammed down our throat like it or not and as commented on by others, it was poorly conceived, designed and undemocratic in its process. The outcome was not all about the flag however. There are undoubtedly other hidden agendas behind the result namely to voice dissatisfaction on a number of matters. I believe this mindset will rollover into the next election and I for one, will be voting to get a better equilibrium into the political governance of this country.

Bill Wollerman said...

Did perchance John Key introduce the flag exercise to assess how fiercely or otherwise Kiwis want a flag change? And what graphics should be on it? Kiwi, fern, koru, Union Jack, Southern Cross, or what? If so, he has succeeded, stirring up a hornets' nest, revealing just how important the issue seems to be to most of us. The issue can now be allowed to die down and some concensus emerge over the next umpteen years. Change is inevitable, total agreement never - but hopefully cool heads will start to reveal some strands of concensus, over time.
As to its design, the idea that it should somehow depict our aims, national aspirations, cultural and behaviour characteristics, such as tolerance, a fair go for all, equal status for all etc....forget it! A design impossibility.
HOWEVER - these considerations can and should be addressed in our National Anthem, much of the words of which are quite irrelevant today. When THAT has been sorted it will be the moment to look at a new flag design. There will now be ample time to address the Anthem problem - for which the multiple views thrown up during the flag debate will actually be most useful, so all is not lost! (I'm working on some new lyrics right now - but no change to the music thanks).