Change flag but only after robust debate - historian

Kyle Lockwood's silver fern design.
Kyle Lockwood's silver fern design.

A referendum on whether New Zealand's flag should be changed should include a provision that the process features a transparent debate, a flag historian says.

Prime Minister John Key announced yesterday that a referendum would be held during the next parliamentary term on the flag.

Massey University doctoral student Malcolm Mulholland, whose writing on Maori and sporting history has also covered almost a century of debate on the flag, said there were lessons from previous failed attempts to change the flag.

Mr Mulholland, who supports a flag change, said the referendum should not repeat the mistake businessman Lloyd Morrison made when he campaigned for a citizens-initiated referendum on the flag in 2004.

"He asked the question, should we change the New Zealand flag? I suspect that some people weren't keen on it because they didn't know what it was going to be replaced with.

"I think the key question, if you put it to a referendum and you say ‘Should we change the New Zealand flag', the second part, which is just as important if not more, is ‘so long as we have a robust, transparent, public process in which every New Zealand citizen has the opportunity to participate and reach a clear majority decision'."

He said if people knew what was coming, they would be more likely to agree to the process.

"I think [the] announcement by Prime Minister Key is an important step in the evolution of our country's identity," he said. "I think the process he signalled is the right process, because if we look at flags of countries that have changed over the years, there are a couple of things that really stand out."

The first was the need to ensure the process was free of political bias, open and transparent. The second was that it needed a groundswell of public support.

He said contrary to the process announced yesterday, the current flag was designed without public consultation, behind closed doors, in response to British law when New Zealand was a colony.

"Let's create a debate. Eventually we'll settle upon a design, colours and so forth, but underlying all those decisions will be what's really important to us as a country. That's the greater debate."

Manawatu Standard