Flag debate gets traction

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 15:56 11/03/2014

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OPINION: It seems fitting that the lowering of the flag to half-mast to mark the centenary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli next year has been earmarked for the start of a debate on whether the time has come for a change.

Of course, that will depend on who wins the election this year. Labour hasn't committed to Prime Minister John Key's idea of a flag referendum and says the country has more pressing priorities.

But the only surprise is it hasn't happened sooner.

The design of the New Zealand flag has rumbled along as an issue for decades but never made it on to the agenda of the government of the day.

Most Kiwis have a view one way or the other.

Key's predecessor, Helen Clark, was always careful not to ruffle feathers down at the Returned and Services Association by mooting a change, though she never bothered to hide her personal view that New Zealand could do better.

Key shied away from elevating the issue after it flared during last year's National Party conference in Nelson, even after acknowledging that it was the change he would most like to make.

A year on, however, and Key is daring to go where no prime minister before him has been prepared to go.

What changed?

A year ago, National might have expected the tide to start going out on its support about now, making the upcoming election a tight one.

A tight election is not the time to have a debate about a potentially divisive issue like the flag, as Labour found with smacking.

Even now, with National's tide rising again, Key has been careful of election-year sensitivities and pushed the debate out until after the country has gone to the polls.

But as Clark's decision to campaign on smacking showed, politicians sometimes have to lead from the front.

The Key government has cemented its economic legacy by steering New Zealand through the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes. But that has left National looking light on bold gestures of nationhood, which might have seemed out of place during those times.

Key is clearly looking to fix that.

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- Fairfax Media

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