Labour 'nuanced' opposition to the flag referendum lacks standards

Labour leader, Andrew Little, promises to be a no-show at the first flag referendum.
FAIRFAX NZ

Labour leader, Andrew Little, promises to be a no-show at the first flag referendum.

OPINION:  When it comes to the flag, the time has come for a change and it is right for the issue to be put to the public.

We knew this was Labour's position at the last election because it said: "We believe that the time has come for a change and it is right for the issue to be put to the public."

(The rest of its policy was to "review the design of the New Zealand flag involving flag design experts and with full public consultation and involvement" but to back the RSA and others to fly the current flag if they so wished.)

Now, though, it thinks it has detected which way the wind is blowing and has adopted with gusto a new (ersatz) opposition to a new flag.

That reached peak absurdity this week when leader Andrew Little pledged not to even vote in the referendum to chose which flag would run-off against the current one.

Call it a principled position on an unprincipled u-turn if you like. Or maybe, a stand on a standard without standards.

Either way, rest assured. If there is going to be a new flag there's no way Little - even as a potential future prime minister - wants even a citizen's say in how it looks.

So Labour is now both in full oppositional mode on the issue, while insisting it is still in favour of a new flag. (The technical term for this is a "nuanced" stance.)

Its first line of attack, back in March, was over the order of the referendums; that a simple yes-no should be the first, potentially saving the cost of the second - a price tag put variously at between $2.2m and $7m.

It is an argument with some merit, but asks people to vote for or against a pig in a poke.

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The Government's plan, backed by officials' advice, is the better option.

More recently Labour has also pointed to growing opposition to a change, backed by public polling.

And throughout it has played on the notion a change now (lest we forget, Labour and Little still support a change) is simply Prime Minister John Key's "vanity project" - an attempt to create a legacy - or, worse, a distraction.

At the same time it has insisted the remaining overall cost - out of a total $27m bill  - could be better spent on other things - "insulating houses, providing meals to kids in schools, things that are actually going to make a difference".

But there's more. Now is no longer the right time for a change.

Instead, a delay of five years would be about right. (Perhaps it thinks there's a good chance Labour will be in power then and can create a "legacy" of its own?).

Even the weakening economy has been co-opted to Labour's cause.

Oh, and if you needed more ammunition Labour also argues that if fewer than half of eligible voters take part in the first flag referendum the second should be scrapped. 

Now, it is never easy to belittle a sum like $27m, or even $17m. The Government has been defending for weeks a smaller amount spent on a dodgy deal to establish a Saudi sheep farm - while arguing black is white over how dodgy it all is.

But frankly, in the Budget scheme of things it is small change, especially for a major change to the nation's emblem.

What Labour seems to be calculating is that it can draw together an unlikely coalition of opponents to change, the Key-averse, supporters of change (but later), people who don't like any of the alternatives...  and anyone who can think of another way to spend a lazy few million dollars.

It may be good politics - though even that is questionable. But it all looks pretty weird coming from a party that for years has seemed more enthusiastic about a new flag than the Government.

Conservatism is supposed to be National's territory.

It's a safe wager that a poll of MPs three years ago would have seen overwhelming backing from Labour and a more lukewarm response from National.

And it also involves something of a political gamble.

Sure, the public mood against a change could become overwhelming and the final run-off between the four options could become a fizzer.

But it is equally likely that, as the options get whittled down, the public mood identifies a front-runner and there is an intense public debate over whether a change should be made.

At that point Key will be at the epicentre of the debate, with Labour left to squeak impotently from the sidelines "too soon".

 - Stuff

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