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Half Mast: What We Learned from New Zealand’s New Flag Debacle

The flag probably won't change but we did get a 26 million dollar lesson in how Kiwis operate.

by Ben Stanley
21 December 2015, 11:55pm

The 26 million dollar challenger to the current New Zealand flag, which tbt, most people were happy with anyway. Image courtesy of govt.nz

It felt like a classic John Key decoy. A dummy pass when the New Zealand's head was buried deep in the ruck.

A new flag? We like the one we've got thanks, Kiwis said. But prime minister, while we've got you, maybe we could talk about the asset sales? The TPPA? Could we do something about the housing market? An why did you pull that girl's ponytail?

Gradually, however, the chance was realised: here's an opportunity—a huge one. A chance to rise out of the six o'clock-closing, quarter-acre pavlova paradise past, and create a new symbol for New Zealand. Something straight-up Kiwi.

We gave the government a cool $26 mill to play with, and a bunch of options for an overpaid 12-person flag selection panel to mull over. They gave us four lame choices, and then tacked on another that wasn't quite as lame.

Then, last week, New Zealand voted. We got our challenger to the incumbent flag. Within 24 hours, it had been written off. We'd blown our chance.

Nothing will happen next March when the two final options go head-to-head. A similar percentage of the people will vote and we'll keep the same flag we had all along. The RSA will be stoked.

But there's a bright side. We didn't just throw that money away, we got a $26 million dollar lesson in how Kiwis operate; a reinforcement of several steel-strong beams that run through the heart of New Zealand culture. This is what we learned.


We hate making decisions

Kiwis hate making decisions. We struggle, we moan, we opine. This isn't a cultural trait distinct to New Zealand—most people hate making the big call.

But what we do have here is an absolute aversion to having our decisions picked apart. We hate criticism, but love to criticize. We can give it, but we can't take it; even if that criticism is warranted—or its subject is a matter that demands moral discussion—and then action.

If we dither long enough for someone else to make the call, we can complain about what they've done and how we'd have done it better if we had the chance.

Safe, dependable incumbent flag.

We lack the balls to take risks

The failure of the flag referendum—and ever-latent potential to start things rolling on a new era of Kiwi-ness—is found where these two things meet; that decision-making paralysis, and an aversion to criticism—to take a risk.

We'd rather choose a safe, boring option than what could possibly be the right one - however risky - because we know it might be uncomfortable for a while. With the flag, that reticence to be criticized once again overwhelmed the ability to make a bold, brave decision.

When was the last time, politically, that New Zealand made a statement that really resonated? You'd have to go back to David Lange's anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s, and his refusal to be a Reagan lackey.

Though Helen Clark had some staunchness, the Key years have seen that straight bat approach return to the crease of New Zealand's collective consciousness.


Our obsession with rugby is suffocating

Though use of the silver fern to symbolize New Zealand long pre-dates organised international sport, it is now, undeniably, the icon of Kiwis representing their nation abroad.

We're pretty damn good athletes, really. You name any sport around the world, and there's a good chance we'll have a Kiwi over-achieving in it. But only one sport occupies the high ground: rugby. Bloody rugby.

It's a word – an entire way of life - that is as much an anchor to this country as it is a symbol as to what we can achieve we team together; the post-colonial standard bearer of the New Zealand experience. Its prime iconology, of course, is the silver fern on black.

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Despite an initial group of forty fantastic options, the flag panel - which featured a former All Black coach, of course – gave New Zealand three silver fern designs in the final group of four; two of which featuring black prominently.

Every rugby test weekend, that All Black jersey is pulled over the every crevasse of New Zealand, with the relevant consequences when we win or lose. Is pulling it over us for eternity really the way to go?

The failing of Red Peak showed a clear demographic disconnect

The disconnect between social media and real New Zealand is massive

The rise of Red Peak—whose embers were heartily blown on by the most vigorous of Kiwi media tweeters—onto the ballot was a triumph; a kind of social media resistance movement. The four initial selections seemed merely future iterations of NZ's Twenty20 cricket uniform, but Red Peak was something different that people were getting excited about.

Yet it finished mid-pack in the referendum, and now is but an icon of that 'Maybe New Zealand' that will no doubt pop up, ironically, at cricket games this summer and beyond. A new 'Bring Back Buck', perhaps.

What the failing of Red Peak showed was a clear demographic disconnect between the Kiwi twittersphere, and reality. Log into Twitter in the lead-up to the referendum, and you'd be convinced that #redpeak was a serious contender.

Yet middle New Zealand, a.k.a. people not on Twitter or 'engaging' with social media campaigns, shot it down in flames. The same occurred last year, when Twitter had Key bungling the general election and reality had the National steamrolling their way to a massive victory.

'I Love Ugly's' controversial recent ads sparked an instant anti-misogynistic hashtag campaign. Ask someone down at the local dairy about it, and they'd have no clue what you were talking about. Life does exist outside Twitter.

James Grey's legendary 'Fire the Lazar!' flag submission

We have a tinny sense of humour

The initial flag suggestions – from the sad droopy beaked Kiwi to the 'wHale of Peace [sic]' – show that, while we struggle to make big decisions for the right reason, we can certainly take the piss better than anyone else.

The defining characteristics of Kiwi humour are its bone-dry eagerness to stick the knife into ourselves and twist (we knew from the get-go we'd bungle this flag chance)—and our ironic love of embracing the basics. The sheep and hokey pokey flag suggestion, as well as the one with Shrewsbury biscuits on it, show as much.

As James Grey, creator of the legendary 'Fire the Lazar!' Kiwi flag design said of his proposal: "the laser beam projects a powerful image of New Zealand. I believe my design is so powerful it does not need to be discussed."

True, bro. True.

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