By Chuan-Zheng Lee
Two months ago, I wrote in this blog professing indifference to the flag change question. I did, though, have just one plea. Follow basic principles of vexillology, I implored. Among other things, keep it simple, “so simple that a child can draw it from memory”. I considered it a fairly routine suggestion. Surely, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well?
Alas, it was too hard. Three of the flags on the shortlist have renditions of the silver fern that I can’t draw as an adult, let alone as a child. Just one meets basic vexillological criteria. Cutely labelled “Hypnoflag“, it’s the least popular of the four. I don’t mind it, but I don’t care much for it, either.
Then I stumbled across the Red Peak. I had glanced at it a few weeks ago and, I admit, was largely apathetic to it. But as I looked at it again, reflected on it and read more about it, its brilliance progressively dawned on me. It has everything in that vexillological handbook: simplicity, meaningful symbolism, distinctiveness. It nods to our Māori origins and our geography. It’s clear even when made small: . I generally think symbols are arbitrary, but I can imagine this one in more than just a hypothetical sense. It fits.
I still don’t mind our current flag. As I wrote in July, I don’t understand the aversion many have towards the Union Jack. Our flag isn’t an epitome of good design, but it ticks the boxes. Red Peak is the first design that would motivate me to vote “yes” in March, not because I want change, but because it would be such a great flag to have.
It won’t happen, of course. We can sign whatever petitions we want, and it’s theoretically possible to get Red Peak on the ballot, but practically it’s too little too late. One might rightly ask, where was all this support before the shortlist was decided, when it mattered?
There are a few things that could have happened. One is that, like me, people may have reflected and changed their opinions. The post that went viral was penned by software investor Rowan Simpson, previously an advocate of the silver fern. Others too, may have learnt about flag design and grown to like Red Peak as they came to understand it. It is just as well that the process is long enough for public discussion.
But why would the tide come only after the shortlist release? It’s possible that people were pushed into action by the shortlist. Motivation to understand what’s good rises when what’s bad becomes a concrete possibility. The Flag Consideration Panel didn’t actively solicit feedback on the long list (which included Red Peak) like they did for “what we stand for“, nor should they have felt obliged to. The whole point of delegating to a committee is that they can devote more effort to their deliberations than the rest of us have time to, and picking a shortlist was their one job. And, to be fair to those who hadn’t thought much about the options beforehand, there were no hints that the panel was going to centre on silver fern designs. Of the forty on the long list, just eleven had detailed silver ferns. Voters might have quite reasonably assumed that the shortlist would reflect this, and not thought about it much more deeply. And when the final options started staring them in the face, they started wondering: does it have to be these?
That would be the innocent explanation. More cynically, a fair amount of Red Peak support seems to be coming from people who previously criticised the flag referendum as a “distraction” from “more important issues”. The tension between this stance and their newfound passion seems not to have occurred to them. Often vehemently opposed to John Key, they take up nearly any cause that contradicts him.
One can’t help but wonder: if Red Peak had been on the shortlist, would that endorsement have triggered a backlash, just like the four on the shortlist now? Some of Red Peak’s proponents are genuine, no doubt, like Mr Simpson. But it’s hard to imagine such strong support if Red Peak had been always been a front-runner, or worse, Mr Key’s favourite.
It’s easy to dismiss the whole movement on this basis. That would be a mistake. The first reason is that its designer puts forward a very respectable case for it. There are surely arguments against it, but the fact that some of its supporters are government opponents is not one of them.
The second, more pragmatic, reason is that Red Peak has pulled people out of indifference, apathy and cynicism towards a flag change in a way that no other design has. For passionate change advocates, this is surely a good thing. Perhaps now they have a chance of convincing sceptics that it’s not a “waste of money” or a “distraction”. It offers an opportunity to move a flag change away from negative reasons, like “this doesn’t reflect us today”, to positive reasons, like “this is a cool flag”.
The fact that Red Peak has slowly won people over should give hope that it can continue to change minds. It’ll take time—too much time, perhaps, to get enough support before the November vote, even if it were on the ballot. If so, the true test is whether Red Peak can keep its groundswell growing after (here is my prediction) New Zealand votes to retain its current flag in March. With an alternative not just for the sake of being an alternative, a renewed flag change effort might get much more support than current polls indicate.