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.