Apparently, we have to vote twice to decide whether we prefer the current flag to something else. So why was one vote enough when we were voting on our electoral system?

I really don't care very much about the whole debate over changing the flag. It just doesn't move me all that much. I have no great fondness for the current design, but equally none of the forty alternatives particularly grip my emotions or imagination. In fact, the Sydney Morning Herald's pisstake of the long-list pretty much sums up my overall thoughts on them.

(Of all the options current and proposed, the "Seven Stars of Matariki" and "Black Jack" probably appeal the most. But as I figure there is zero chance of these getting to the 4-strong shortlist - you think we're really going to go with a black flag? - that's pretty irrelevant.)

In fact, I'm pretty take-it-or-leave-it on the whole point of having a "national" flag. Sure, we need something to put up on public buildings and hoist a few times at sporting events. But I quite like the fact that we've got a bunch of other generally used national symbols that can be appropriated for different purposes. The silver fern for putting onto backpacks in Europe. The Kiwi for our armed forces and "Buy NZ Made" logos. The Koru for when we're feeling the need to be all bi-cultural.

Each identify us as New Zealanders. But none of them are considered the identifying symbol for us all as a nation. And maybe it's the very artificiality of trying to construct one symbol to rule them all and on the cloth bind them (to take another quintessentially New Zealand trope that we've appropriated from elsewhere) that makes me feel somewhat jaded about the whole exercise.

Or maybe it's just that, as Ian MacKaye et al put it, "We draw lines and stand behind them/ That's why flags are such ugly things."

Anyway, that's all a long winded explanation (excuse?) for why I'm going to avoid having to think about the issue by delegating the choice to my 7 and 4 year old kids. They can look at whatever four options we're eventually told are "the best alternatives" and see which one they like the most ... and then decide if the most favoured of those four is any better than our original. After all, they'll live with the consequences for longer (I hope!), and as I don't really care they may as well do the deciding.

There's one little point that I want to make about the politics of the whole debate, however. Audrey Young's Herald column today is pretty scathing about the Labour and Green Party's decision to take an oppositional approach to the whole referendum. Fair enough - it is a pretty transparently opportunistic decision to avail themselves of the opportunity to hammer the National Government with the whole "why are we spending $26 million on this, when we could be doing that?" attack line. Whether that is worse than John Key's born-again desire to create a new and independent branding for New Zealand, without actually creating a new and independent constitution for New Zealand, is for the eye of the beholder.

But Audrey Young then goes on to say:

 Labour also argues there should have been a referendum first to see whether voters wanted change before spending the money on the process.

But you wouldn’t expect to agree to a free house-paint without knowing what colour it was going to be.

And as the officials designing the process pointed out, “asking people to vote without seeing what these alternative designs look like would risk the legitimacy of the referendum process”.

David Farrar also chips in with his cut-and-paste agreement:

It’s silly to have a vote, without knowing what you are voting on.

Well, that's OK as far as it goes. But here's the problem I have with this claim. In the past 25 years we've had two referendums that did exactly this. I'm referring, of course, to the first round of the referenda on changing the electoral system held in 1992 and 2011.

At both of these referenda, voters were asked two questions: "do you want to change the electoral system?"; and "which alternative voting system would you prefer?" Only if a majority of people voted "yes" to change was the preferred alternative voting system then put up against the status quo in a straight run-off vote. That happened in 1992, but didn't happen in 2011.

So I guess here's my question. If that process was considered good enough for deciding whether to change the voting system, why wasn't it good enough for deciding whether to change the flag?

Comments (22)

by Nick Gibbs on August 15, 2015
Nick Gibbs

That's easy to answer. National, Labour and the Greens all had election policies to change the flag via referendum. The overwhelming majority of the voting population voted for these parties, and it's reasonable to assume, for their flag changing policies.

All National is doing is putting the will of the people, declared at the GE, into action.

Shame that Labour and the Greens changed their minds.

by Andrew Geddis on August 15, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Sure, a referendum on the flag was promised. Just as one on the electoral system was promised prior to the 2008 election. That earlier promise produced a process by which people voted on whether they wanted change (as well as what to), to be followed by another vote only if they did. So why did the latter promise produce a different process?

FWIIW, here's my (maybe overly cynical) explanation. Back in 1992, the process was set up in the hope that status quo bias would cause people to vote "no" to change at the first step. But it didn't work. Then, when the electoral referendum do-over was held in 2011, Simon Power (to his credit) decided to use the same process as had introduced MMP, recognising that anything else would smack of rigging the result. 

Now we have the flag vote. If there is status quo bias, then this will cause people to reject the idea of change at the first hurdle. That would be bad for John Key - he doesn't just want to "give people the chance to decide" on the flag's future, he wants the flag to change. So we've got a process that (as far as possible) maximises the likelihood of that outcome.

Or is there an alternative explanation for why one process ought to be followed for one sort of change, but another process is appropriate for another?

by Graeme Edgeler on August 16, 2015
Graeme Edgeler

Or is there an alternative explanation for why one process ought to be followed for one sort of change, but another process is appropriate for another?

There are alternative explanations. The MMP referendums in both 1992 and 2011 contained two first-past-the-post questions. That is not the case here. At the strong urging of New Zealand Flag Cross-Party MPs’ Group, and against the initial decision of cabinet, the first referendum is to include a preferential vote to decide between the flags. My understanding is that the preferential vote was at the suggestion of Labour and the Green Party.

Preferential voting has never been used for a national electoral event, and there is political science research that mixing voting systems during an election can lead to voter confusion, and discourage voter engagement. If the first referendum were to contain both an FPP: "should we have another vote?" question, and a preferential "please rank these flags" question, voters may be more likely to switch off. Especially when the vote is being held as a standalone postal referendum, choosing a process which may discourage voter participation is a bad idea.

Well, that's the argument anyway. I'm not sure I buy it (in fact, I argued against it in my submission), but I certainly don't buy the alternative posited by DPF: that asking such a question is almost undemocratic.

by David Farrar on August 16, 2015
David Farrar

Andrew is comparing apples and oranges here. To quote my submission:

"

  1. It is quite possible a large number of voters could vote at the first referendum that they do not want change, yet could be persuaded that the alternate design is preferable to the current design and vote for it, even though they did not have a problem with the current design. There is a difference between finding the current design acceptable, and saying that no other design could be better.
  2. A flag is not an electoral system. A flag is simply a design, and the most informed way to vote is choosing between the current design and an alternative design.
  3. An electoral system can produce outcomes such as a disproportional , a lack of women, a majority Government which allows voters to decide they want change, regardless of the alternative. But a vote on a flag makes no sense without knowing the alternative."
by Andrew Geddis on August 16, 2015
Andrew Geddis

@Graeme,

Hmm. I guess. But I'm not really convinced that asking people the discrete question "do you want to change the flag?", then proceeding to ask them to "list these 4 alternatives in order of preference" would have caused people to switch off. It's not the same as, say, local elections where people are being asked to elect their council by STV and then their DHB by FPP ... which is a mess!

@David,

Sure - you said that. But I'm not convinced!

1. How is your first point any different to a situation in 2011 where a person finds MMP broadly acceptable, but if asked to choose between MMP and (say) STV would prefer the latter? 

2. Yes. A flag is not an electoral system. But your claim is "the most informed way to vote" is to choose between known alternatives. I don't see how that general claim changes with different subjects (flags vs electoral systems).

3. Yes, a person can know that they don't like the present electoral system because of its outcomes irrespective of whatever else is on offer to replace it. But why is the flag any different? Lots of people say "I don't like the current flag because it's boring/it's a colonial relic/it's too like Australia's/etc, etc". So there's metrics available for people to judge the acceptability of the present flag without knowing what what else is on offer. Plus, of course, people would know what is (potentially) on offer ... they'd see the four other options. So why not let people decide at the first hurdle whether any of those four options are any better?

So, you are right that I am comparing apples and oranges. But only to the extent that I'm saying "here's two forms of fruit - why is one being sold in one way while the other is being sold in a quite different way?" Just saying that they are different kinds of fruit doesn't really answer the question.

Final note - I'm really not that fussed about having to vote twice, and the whole "it's a waste of money!" argument has only limited traction ... money on democracy isn't a particularly bad thing to me. It's more of an intellectual question of why things are being done different this time.

by Nick Gibbs on August 16, 2015
Nick Gibbs

@Andrew,

Your explanation make a lot of sense. Most interesting is the assumption by some, that given the choice, the general population would not vote for change, but given an actual alternative most will vote for a new flag.

If a large majority do vote for a new design, it would vindicate the method chosen. And imo is also what I believe will happen.

by Ross on August 16, 2015
Ross

<em>Final note - I'm really not that fussed about having to vote twice</em>

You don't have to vote twice. In fact, you don't have to vote once! 

by Ross on August 16, 2015
Ross

If a large majority do vote for a new design, it would vindicate the method chosen. And imo is also what I believe will happen.

I would hazard a guess and say that the status quo will be chosen by the majority as the alternative is uninspiring. A similar failed flag-choosing-process has been observed overseas. The South African process was interesting. 

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27155475

by Andrew Geddis on August 16, 2015
Andrew Geddis

If a large majority do vote for a new design, it would vindicate the method chosen.

Sure ... but by the same token, what if less than half of us participate in the first round? What does that say about the method chosen?

You don't have to vote twice. In fact, you don't have to vote once!

Oh, but I do! I love voting on things!!

by Lynn Prentice on August 16, 2015
Lynn Prentice

Like Andrew, I can't see any particular reason to have a flag. We have enough recognizable branding around for various things. Therefore I can't see any reason to go to the expense of changing it, and all of the flags currently in use.

Besides - the 40 flags in the choice all look like sports underwear designs.

I think that I'll follow the advice of NZ First in this one. Spoil the first vote because it will register, be counted as invalid, and reported as such. Make it the anti-vote.

Vote against change in the second vote a year later. 

Hopefully one way of another we will get rid of the inane need to have a "flag".

by Katharine Moody on August 16, 2015
Katharine Moody

I'm interested in the legal/diplomatic question of whether the alternate stylisation of the Union Jack (the design called Black Jack) would even be allowed by the Crown. I doubt the panel liaised with Buckingham Palace on that one - it's beyond awful, can't see our Head of State putting up with that. It also infringes on Air New Zealand's IP rights as well, I'd say. This, I think is the problem with national flag design by amateur committee/open-to-all comers type process - it raises too many questions in my mind about whether those driving it have any clue.

The process to me is unbecoming, unprofessional and immature.Int'l media commentary says it all - it's been a great source of amusement - and fair enough.

I'm taking the spoil the first vote route as well on that basis.

by Graeme Edgeler on August 16, 2015
Graeme Edgeler

Hmm. I guess. But I'm not really convinced that asking people the discrete question "do you want to change the flag?", then proceeding to ask them to "list these 4 alternatives in order of preference" would have caused people to switch off. 

Neither am I. Indeed, the only reason I raised this in my submission on the bill was to point out the reasons why I didn't think the risk was great this time 'round.

That said, the experience of the MMP referendum does give some cause to reconsider the approach used. If we are to have a second referendum, it should pit the alternative flag favoured by the majority of NZers against the current flag.

Having two questions would, I think, discourage a lot of people who support the current flag from giving their opinion on the possible replacements. Now, some may simply not vote this time, who would at least have voted in the first question, but we have evidence from the MMP referendum about what happens when people have that choice: over 50% of people who voted to keep MMP did not choose an option on the second question. This is a problem if we wanted a subsequent referendum to be between the current systems and the most-favoured alternative.

Obviously, we cannot say what would have happened had the first question not been there, but my strong suspicion is that there would have been more valid votes.

I think we could have had two questions this time, but if we are committed to ensuring that any alternative flag has as great as possible buy-in, so that if there is a change, it is to something that might be seen as at least acceptable by supporters of the current flag, then one question is the way to go.

by Andrew Geddis on August 16, 2015
Andrew Geddis

That said, the experience of the MMP referendum does give some cause to reconsider the approach used.

Only if you (or, rather, some hypothetical process designer) wants to produce a head-to-head vote-off between the status quo and a "most preferred alternative". If you want to produce an answer to the question "do people even want to change?" then the 2011 method did just fine!

by Graeme Edgeler on August 16, 2015
Graeme Edgeler

Only if you (or, rather, some hypothetical process designer) wants to produce a head-to-head vote-off between the status quo and a "most preferred alternative". If you want to produce an answer to the question "do people even want to change?" then the 2011 method did just fine!

Only because the answer was no. If the answer had been yes, you'd have been running off MMP against an option supported by only ~31% of voters as the best alternative.

The argument is that you cannot get (or at least get as successfully) the most preferred alternative, if you also want the answer to the first question.

by Andrew Geddis on August 17, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Sure - but this assumes (of course) that people who don't want to change the flag still will participate in the first round "rank-off". Or, that they'll do so in good faith (as opposed to taking Trevor Mallard's "put the worst option first" approach). So I'm not sure that the argument is necessarily correct.

by Graeme Edgeler on August 17, 2015
Graeme Edgeler

but this assumes (of course) that people who don't want to change the flag still will participate in the first round "rank-off".

It assume that more than zero will. I think this is probably a fair assumption, although (of course) we cannot know for certain.

by Rich on August 17, 2015
Rich

In fact, I'm pretty take-it-or-leave-it on the whole point of having a "national" flag

Parliament should just repeal the law that mandates one and then Gareth Morgan can finance an unofficial referendum to choose an unofficial flag. Then people can fly it, or burn it*, or not, as the feeling takes them.

* Subject of course to it being their flag, and in a safe area with appropriate precautions.

by Lee Churchman on August 17, 2015
Lee Churchman

I would hazard a guess and say that the status quo will be chosen by the majority as the alternative is uninspiring

Worse. They are all awful. Most of them violate design principles and none of them actually look like a national flag. There were plenty of good designs, but the flag panel apparently didn't include any designers and the people on it seem to have no taste.

by Peter Nicholson on August 18, 2015
Peter Nicholson

No long winded explanation needed. The method chosen sees significantly more chance of the exercise succeeding with its aim. i.e. there being a new flag. 

by Ross on August 19, 2015
Ross

Peter,

I am not sure how you come to that conclusion. 

by Rich on August 19, 2015
Rich

 the legal/diplomatic question of whether the alternate stylisation of the Union Jack (the design called Black Jack) would even be allowed by the Crown

I don't believe either the British government or the monarch have any jurisdiction in the matter (or the NZ government, which is what the "crown" means in NZ). 

Unless they can claim IPR in the flag, in which case they probably wouldn't let Ginger Spice wear a union jack miniskirt.

 

by Lee Churchman on August 20, 2015
Lee Churchman

I don't believe either the British government or the monarch have any jurisdiction in the matter

Intentionally defacing another country's flag would create needless diplomatic trouble.

However, the main problem with the 40 flags is that none of them actually look like national flags. Most break basic flag design rules, such those covering divisions of space.

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