30 October 2014
My Irish forbears were staunchly republican. I have inherited that trait. So, you would think I would welcome the Prime Minister’s plan for a couple of referenda on changing the New Zealand flag to something more distinctive.
Do not get me wrong – I do, but, at the same time, I think it is a really wasted opportunity. The process is estimated to cost around $26 million and at the end of it all we will either have a new flag, or not, as the people will decide. Nothing else will have changed.
MPs and others swearing oaths of loyalty will still be required to swear them to the Queen. The activities of the state will still be carried out in her name or those of “her heirs and successors”, who will still live on the other side of the world, with no direct or meaningful involvement in or understanding of the lives of contemporary New Zealanders.
We may well change the design of a cloth – and finally banish the Union Jack – but beyond that not a lot else is likely, or, more importantly, intended to change. It is a $26 million downpayment on letting the people have their say, but without threatening the core fabric of our comfortable society too much.
Sadly, it could have all been quite different, and not just another spluttered effort along the way. So too could the results of the Constitutional Arrangements Review Committee I chaired in 2004-05, but the Clark Government got cold feet when it came to getting anywhere near the feared “R” word. And so, despite their inclinations, the status quo was preferred, and the first opportunity for reform allowed to pass.
When the current government took office, the Constitutional Conversation was established, with a very high powered Eminent Persons Group under the distinguished leadership of Sir Tipene O’Regan, but again, the debate was cast in such a way to prevent any substantive debate of the “R” question. Despite the eminence of the committee and the willingness of people to engage and to be engaged, it rapidly became clear that the real purpose of the committee, at least insofar as the government was concerned, was to get the National and Maori Parties off their respective intransigent and diametrically opposed high horses on the future of the Maori seats. While it achieved that, it became our second lost opportunity in five years for a wider constitutional debate.
All of which brings me to the current flag exercise, which seems likely to fizzle out once the primary question has been resolved. It really is all quite clever politics. At one level, the various efforts of the last decade can be held to show at least that governments have a superficial willingness to talk about constitutional issues, so that can be construed as a positive. But, at another level, the debates have been constructed in such a way to ensure that the real issues are not addressed or really even discussed.
That may well work while it is perceived that the majority is comfortable with our retaining the Royal Family as the source of our Head of State. A little racy perhaps in giving people a say over the flag, but no real harm done even if people vote to change it, because we still have the Queen.
But, the times are a-changing. New Zealand’s increasingly multi-ethnic society feels less and less emotionally linked to Buckingham Palace as each year and scandal passes. The cry for our own Head of State will become irresistible, just as it was to my forbears all those years ago.