Flag selection process 'undemocratic' stuff nation

New Zealanders have voted to retain the current flag, which dates back to 1902.

New Zealanders have voted to retain the current flag, which dates back to 1902.

OPINION: Voting papers for the second referendum on the New Zealand flag have now been distributed to all households in New Zealand, and the question asked on the voting papers is "What is your choice for the New Zealand flag?"

I am concerned that there are various aspects of this flag selection process that have been unscientific and undemocratic. I would like to share my concerns with you and also discuss some of the implications of the current second referendum in this process.

Generally the early stages of this flag selection process appear to have been done very well with a total of 10,292 flag designs being generated by the New Zealand public. However, some would argue that a more efficient process may have involved just a smaller number of 'flag design specialists'.

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These flags have been displayed on the flag gallery website, and about 36 colour and symbol themes have been identified. The distribution of the main themes present in the suggested 10,292 flag designs is summarised in the Figure 1 (a) & (b) below. 


The process of generating the official long list of 39 flag designs from the original 10,292 appears to have been done quite well. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions.  

For example, in the original list there were about 2,842 flags with 'koru' symbols on them. However, in the Flag Consideration Panel's official long list there was a much higher proportion of koru symbols (17 out of 39 or 44 per cent, compared with only 28 per cent in the original list). Similarly themes like 'landscape' were under represented in the official long list with only two flags with landscape symbols out of 39 (5 per cent) compared with 15 per cent (1,581) flags from the original suggested designs.

However, where the process has become 'unscientific and undemocratic' is at the next stage, ie the selection of the four flags for the first referendum by the Flag Consideration Panel. (In Table 1, plus the 'Red Peak' flag added later)

For example, there is an immediate 'colour bias' in the flags selected for the first referendum vote. There were four flags out of five with a strong 'black' colour theme, or 80 per cent of these flags compared only 52 per cent of the flags suggested containing the 'black colour' (see Figure 1a). By contrast there were no 'green' tagged flags selected in the final list of five flags, despite the fact that 27 per cent (2,815) of the original flag designs included the colour 'green'.

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Also there were a disproportionately high amount of flags with the fern symbol in the final list of five. There were three flags with the fern symbol (or 60 per cent) in the final set, compared with only 29 per cent of flags containing a 'fern' in the original suggested list.

These biases suggest that the flag selection process was 'unscientific' and didn't represent the 'revealed preferences' of the New Zealand public as expressed by the 10,292 designs submitted.

The issue of 'was the process democratic' will now be considered. Consider the situation of the four flags selected by the Flag Consideration Panel. They consisted of three flags out of 4 (75 per cent) with a strong 'black' colour theme and three flags out of 4 (ie 75 per cent) including a fern symbol. Consider the situation if only four candidates were presented for election in a specific electorate in New Zealand, and three belonged to one political party (eg the National Party) and the other candidate belonged to another political party (eg the Labour Party) and the other political parties were not permitted to be represented at the election in that electorate. That election would be considered most 'undemocratic'. Hence providing this 'biased' set of five flags for voting on in the first referendum can also be considered as 'undemocratic'.

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However, this was the situation leading into the first voting referendum, and the outcome is now well known that Option A Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) was selected after the transferable votes were counted from those people who selected other alternatives first. The final outcome following this process was that there were 670,790 votes for Option A, and 655,466 votes for Option E Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue). Interestingly Option E was a clear winner based on peoples' 'first preference votes' gaining 580,241 votes compared with 559,587 votes for Option A (see Table 1).

This would have been acceptable, accept for the biased range of flag choices made available to the New Zealand eligible voters. The heavy 'black colour' bias together with the 'fern symbol' bias ensured that the majority of people voting for Option D (Black & White Silver Fern) in particular, would vote for Option A as their second choice, because of well known behavioural biases and colour psychology. In fact when Option D was excluded from the final vote, 48,499 votes went to Option A compared with only 22,628 votes going to Option E. Similarly people voting for the black and white koru (Option C) showed a similar bias towards putting their subsequent votes to Option A compared with Option E.

This biased flag choice ensured that the majority second and third preference votes went to Option A over Option E, and hence the final count suggesting Option A was successful with 50.58% of the vote, compared with 49.42 per cent for Option E.

Clearly this is an unacceptable outcome from the perspective of ensuring a 'scientifically correct and democratically acceptable' flag selection process.

To correct this bias I have recalculated the voting patterns in Table 1 on the hypothetical assumption that the biases discussed above were not present in the flags selected. I have based the calculations on the assumption that the second and subsequent votes from two other flags would have been distributed to Options A and E in the same proportions as the allocations from Option B (the Red Peak design).

This provides an interesting set of results where the overall winner of the hypothetical first referendum would have been Option E Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) with 50.17% of the vote compared with 49.83% for Option A.

In some respects this would not be surprising if the first referendum had been 'unbiased' as Kyle Lockwood's Option E Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) flag is a direct development based on his earlier award winning flag (see Figure 2).

Kyle Lockwood designed this flag in June 2000. He entered it in the Hutt News flag competition run in July 2004 where it was voted the winning flag.

Presumably that competition was 'fair and unbiased'.

This leads to the current situation, where eligible New Zealand voters have been sent voting papers for the second referendum on the New Zealand flag. Voters have been asked the following question:

"What is your choice for the New Zealand flag?"

This would be a fair question if the alternative flag had been selected on unbiased and democratic principles.

Unfortunately it hasn't.

Voters have been asked to 'vote for only one flag', either Option A above (Black, White and Blue Silver Fern) or the current New Zealand flag:

Unfortunately given the biased selection process, voters are now being 'lead' to vote for either Option A or the current New Zealand flag. Many other options exist, eg voters might prefer another flag design, or voters might be unhappy with the flag selection process.

Hence a 'fairer' question and options for voting in the second referendum might have been:

"Do you want the flag selected from the first referendum (ie Option A) as your new flag for New Zealand".

Answer either 'Yes' or 'No'.

That would have been a fairer process given the situation.

Instead now New Zealand voters should be encouraged to vote for the current New Zealand flag for the following reasons:

- They prefer the current New Zealand flag;

- They don't like either the Option A or the current New Zealand flag;

- They are unhappy with the current flag selection process;

Any other reason?

Alternatively if New Zealand voters prefer Option A then they should vote for that flag.

Finally I would like to suggest that irrespective of the outcome of this second referendum, we should move to a third referendum at the next general election giving New Zealand voters a genuine choice of flags to choose from. As the Flag Consideration Panel have said : 

"A potential new flag should unmistakably be from New Zealand and celebrate us as a progressive, inclusive nation that is connected to its environment, and has a sense of its past and a vision for its future."

Bob Cavana is an associate professor at the Victoria Business School, Victoria University of Wellington.

 - Stuff.co.nz


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