Sun, Aug 16, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Flag fever gives way to fatigue

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key wants a new flag, but the shortlist of 40 designs has been met with apathy and active opposition

By Elle Hunt  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

In asking whether it should change the national flag, New Zealand’s government sought to start a conversation about what the nation “stands for.” In so many joke designs, New Zealanders responded: Their right to take the piss.

In May, the government put out an open call for alternatives to the current flag, which pairs Britain’s Union Jack with the Southern Cross constellation. In a little under two months, members of the public — many if not most of whom had no more design experience than that afforded by Photoshop and an Internet connection — put forward almost 10,300 submissions for consideration by an independent panel.

The panel might have come to regret the low barrier to entry. As long as a design did not feature offensive or copyrighted imagery, or an individual’s face, its upload was approved. The 10,292 submissions were a mishmash of New Zealand’s past, present and potential futures: Some giving the Union Jack even greater prominence; others boosting traditional Maori culture; one with a kiwi shooting lasers from its eyes.

The government had made it clear that, at that point in the process, there was no such thing as a bad idea — not even those that were patently, gleefully daring it to call them out as such. A childlike line drawing of a “deranged cat raking its garden”; a crude scrawl of a man on a bicycle; the Southern Cross reimagined as a pentagram; most egregiously, a quick response (QR) code. A spokeswoman for the panel said it was “great to see such a high level of engagement.”

Needless to say, none of these blatant trolls of the public consultation process made the shortlist of 40 finalists published on Monday. All are variations on the silver fern, the koru, the Southern Cross constellation and combinations of the three, in blue, red, white, black and green.

The 12 people on the panel — none of whom is a designer — are now set to whittle the finalists down to the four that “best represent New Zealand,” which the public are to be asked to rank in a binding postal referendum scheduled for later this year. The favorite is to be deemed the preferred alternative to the existing flag, and — if the current timeline is observed — a second referendum in April is to ask voters to pick between the two.

If a new design is voted in, it would take effect six months to the day after the results are declared. However, if public opinion persists, there is a strong likelihood that the result could be an anticlimax, with voters accepting the “status quo” as an easy way out of a conversation that they never really wanted to have.

As Australian republicans follow the debate from across the Tasman Sea with envy, there is a sense in New Zealand that there is no real impetus to change the flag, especially without an associated debate about whether to become a republic, and that the NZ$26 million (US$17.01 million) spent on the process could be put to better use. Nevertheless, the flag debate has also apparently sparked “growing calls” for a change of anthem.

Since the process got under way in earnest, the public response has ranged from apathy — 25 nationwide meetings on the issue were attended by a total of 739 people, an average of only 29 — to hostility. Days after it put out a call for submissions, the Flag Consideration Panel published a word cloud that suggested many New Zealanders wanted the flag left alone.

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