Flag debate a diversion

The flag debate is back on the political agenda, with Prime Minister John Key suggesting a referendum might be held with the general election this year to determine if the New Zealand ensign should be changed to something else. His reasoning is that this is a constitutional issue and "constitutional matters have to be taken to the people".

Key's comment needs to be seen in context. In fact, New Zealanders have already been having a "conversation" on constitutional matters, through a 12-member Constitutional Review Panel set up by the Government under an agreement with its Maori Party ally. The panel conducted meetings and hui, and received 5259 submissions, only to conclude last year nothing much more than that the "conversation" should continue.

The panel was considering questions far meatier than what should be run up a flagpole. Its brief included looking at the role of the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori representation in Parliament and local government, and the Bill of Rights Act. Unsurprisingly, it found that New Zealanders have a range of views on all of these, and that was taken as an indication of the nation's diversity. If the panel failed to grapple with the issues in detail, perhaps that was because - in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Bill English - "there is no sense of an urgent or widespread desire for change".

The two "constitutional" issues which get the most press are probably whether New Zealand should be a republic (not in the panel's terms of reference) and whether we should change the flag. Of those two, the first is most definitely a constitutional issue. The second probably is not despite the Prime Minister's attempt to portray it as such. Both the republic and flag debates flare up every year or so, and each time they tend to fizzle out without much being achieved. The late Wellington businessman Lloyd Morrison spent years trying to gather the signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters needed to force a referendum on the flag. He never managed it.

Yet now, at the start of an election year, not just the Prime Minister but other MPs of various parties are suddenly talking about the flag. Labour MP Trevor Mallard says it is right for the issue to be put to the public; Green co-leader Russel Norman says there is a need for change; Peter Dunne of the United Future Party thinks the referendum is a good idea. This all comes three months after $9 million of taxpayers' money was wasted on an asset sales referendum that the Government has ignored.

In election year, the public wants to hear politicians grappling with real issues. In Canterbury these include the rebuild, and water quality and allocation. Nationally they include housing supply and affordability, education, and the dual-speed economy and its effect on inequality. The proposed flag referendum should be seen for what it really is - an unwelcome diversion.

The Press