Paul Thomas

Choice is not a Matter of Taste

Mar 4, 2016 | Kiwiana

It seems most Kiwis fit into at least one of the following categories on the question of whether to stick with the current flag or replace it with the Lockwood design.

  • Well-known people who think it’s time for a change.
  • Well-known people who want to stick with the status quo.
  • Those who reckon well-known people who think it’s time for a change should keep their opinion to themselves.
  • Those who think the fact that Richie McCaw noticed the similarity between the New Zealand and Australian flags as he ran out onto Twickenham for the World Cup final showed he didn’t have his mind on the job. (A category of one.)
  • Those who think the Lockwood flag, whatever its perceived shortcomings, is eminently preferable to the status quo.
  • Those who don’t think we should change the flag – not now, not ever.
  • Those who are so bored by the whole drawn-out, bureaucratic process they’ve ceased to care either way.
  • Those who profess to want a new flag but will vote against the Lockwood design because they disapprove of the process that generated it.
  • Those who profess to want a new flag but will vote against the Lockwood design because they don’t want to hand John Key a victory and believe he will be politically damaged if the referendum doesn’t go his way. (Also known as the Labour Party.)
  • Those who want a new flag but will vote against the Lockwood design because they think it sucks.

I expect the combined votes of the last five categories will carry the day, thus ensuring that, for the foreseeable future, we’re stuck with a flag which invites the assumption we’re either a British colony or a state of Australia.

The backlash against McCaw was as predictable as it was depressing. We constantly bemoan athlete tunnel vision and celebrity self-absorption but, whenever one expresses an opinion on a matter of public interest, we tell them to get back in their cocoon.

It is, to say the least, a dismal state of affairs that the Labour Party, historically the champion of progressive causes and an agent of change, should be effectively campaigning for the status quo.
It may well be the case that Key should have handled the process better and that, if New Zealand votes for change this month, historians of the future will see that as a feather in his cap. But, in the grand scheme of things, who cares? These opportunities don’t come around that often.

Those who dismiss the Lockwood design on aesthetic grounds are reducing the issue to a matter of personal taste, a formula for retaining the current flag forever and a day. Herald columnist Polly Gillespie wants a “ballsy” flag but one person’s ballsy flag is another person’s load of bollocks.

Dismissing the Lockwood design as a beach towel, actor Sam Neill wants “dignity.” Well, most flags end up as beach towels or tea towels or worse. Spice Girl Geri Halliwell used to cavort in a Union Jack dress so micro her knickers were on permanent display. She perpetrated a similar atrocity with the Stars and Stripes. The two best-known flags are marketing and pop culture clichés; the more iconic the flag, the more it will be appropriated and commercialised.

There’s a lot of territory separating ballsiness and dignity which suggests it’s unlikely there’ll ever be a design that finds favour with both Gillespie and Neill.

Another Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly will vote for the current flag until the advocates of change come up with “the best flag they could have imagined for Aotearoa.”

But how will we know when we’re looking at the best? Something better might come along next year or next decade or next century. And best according to whom?

Last time I wrote on this subject, Max Cryer emailed me making the case for Colin Simon’s 1974 Commonwealth Games flag: “Acknowledges the British heritage without being obsequious and hits the eye with our country’s unique symbol – the initials NZ.” It works for me but I can hear it being dismissed as a corporate logo.

Marvelly wrote that “to change simply for the sake of change disrespects the importance of our national identity.”

I think change would be a significant expression of national identity. What strikes me as disrespectful is choosing our flag on the basis of the philistine’s credo: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.”

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.