I was not a big fan of the recent process to select a potential new flag for New Zealand. At a fundamental level, the debate was driven by political rather than constitutional imperatives. The reason for changing the flag was never quite articulated, and the final option chosen suffered from this failure of process.
In an important way, the failure of the change movement gave me some cause for hope. Some things like national symbols are apparently bigger than party politics. That’s very reassuring for those of us who think about the New Zealand government in constitutional terms. Politicians certainly shouldn’t get everything they want under any credible system of government. That symbols of nationhood – imbued as they are with values and ideals and a sense of purpose greater than any individual – fall into that category means that New Zealanders are more civically aware than many people might give them credit for.
Much more interesting than the failure to garner popular support for an alternative is what might happen next. Lewis Holden, a leading figure in New Zealand’s republican movement, claimed that despite the failure of the specific alternative presented to a national referendum, the 'close' result meant that argument for change had only just begun. I think he is right for two reasons. The first, superficial reaon is that the biggest failing of the entire change campaign was the failure to articulate a reason that change might be a good idea. So starting work on that task is important. A genuine case for change still needs to be made.
The second reason is less sacastic and hopefully more inspiring. There is now a clear opportunity to make the case for cogently and effectively in a way that the recent process couldn't. The Red Peak movement demonstrated something that was otherwise lacking from the change debate – an organic, popular movement in support of an alternative that people felt had meaning and longevity. Now I am not ardent supporter of Red Peak, but the (albeit minority) support it garnered was the stuff on which movements of change can be based. Bottling that feeling and making it more widespread is the real challenge.
There is another aspect that should not be overlooked. A credible, compelling case for change takes time to build. It’s probably a decade-long endeavour, because it needs to be based on authentic conservations with the people who are directly affected – New Zealanders. And the issues in play are tricky. Asking people to see values and ideals in a design that is brand new to them doesn’t work. Any alternative needs to emerge from genuine discussions and debate over time.
This is how a constitutionalist would have things. Measured, deliberate steps towards long-term change offers respect for the past as well as a meaningful vision for the future. It’s also likely to be the most effective way to actually secure change in regards to something as nationally important as a flag. It’s a constitutional debate that is still very much worth having.