Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Reflections on Flag Change : A Lesson for the Future

Over the past year and a bit, New Zealand has been mucking around with the process of maybe changing its flag. This has been a process which has, primarily, sparked internet engagement and has found itself stuck in the normal paradigm of New Zealand politics: John Key. That is a disaster. But what is worse is that New Zealand's probably going to do this several more times in my lifetime. Well, not necessarily over the flag but I see similar debacles arising over the Republic and Written Constitution questions. This blog is here to try and stop the rot. Sadly, it won't succeed because no-one reads it but that doesn't mean I shouldn't try. If we repeat this severely flawed process again, we will have problems. Or, rather, we won't be able to call ourselves democratic because we'd be continually be returning to something which, as a democratic process, is clearly a sham. 

Now, as you all know, I am not in favour of New Zealand's flag change. Yet, I have probably been one of the most engaged people with the process, short of running it. I have written several different posts for this blog on the subject of flag change. I got involved with the Panel in terms of submitting a flag design and that "I Stand for thing". I have argued my positions on other sites, including Facebook, and I voted in the referendum too (my only physical engagement it must be said, and it's a postal referendum). So, when I say that this process has been a complete disaster, you shut up and listen to me. Nah, that's not fair... what should we have done differently? Not presenting solutions is just whining.

Firstly, we shouldn't really just arbitrarily decide to start. And if we do, we definitely shouldn't have the result "handled" every step of the way from the top... in this case by John Key. Flag Change was an election idea from both National and Labour. In other words, at no stage have we had an opportunity to establish the mandate for change because there was no real choice. (Labour's main objections have been over the process.) But more to the point is that it has been Key who has kept things moving. He's advocated for particular flags and changed his ideas along the way as well. Everyone knows Teflon John likes silver ferns, and everyone knows that the Lockwood designs are the ones he likes. Strangely enough, we have two Lockwoods and one silver fern to choose from (and Blue Lockwood is surely the favourite). The closest we have come to getting some sort of widespread engagement was the Red Peak movement. However, that was far too little, far too late. Anyway, the point is, if the top must decide that we should talk about something, it should step back and not do what Key did... that would also have reduced the input from Labour. Okay, so now we have started the process, how it should it go?

Well, one might be tempted to say that the exact nature of the question at hand will determine this stage. After all maybe it doesn't make so much sense to have a legal question (written constitution; which I also oppose) alongside two questions of identity (flag and republic, which again I also oppose)... although depending on how stupid people are the republic one can move beyond identity (the best a republic can be is simply to remove the Queen/monarch from our current arrangement and have the PM recommend a replacement to the incumbent from a list drawn up by all the other party leaders). I reject that notion. In principle, these big changes are all issues of identity and are about who the nation is. To that end, you need to gauge what the nation actually is. Submissions like in the constitutional conversation, more "soundbitey" versions of that (a la flag change's "I stand for") and public discussions (even if no-one turns up, as happened here... but if you do it right, people will turn up). However, you need to make sure that the people who are charged with interpreting this stuff are independent. I would, therefore, spend a bit more cash and have whatever Panel and some outside consultants double up on the work. Doing things right, as opposed to this style of hack job, is really important. Although, of course, one ideally wants something with more substance than a word cloud... which will always be acontextual (and simply finds the most frequent words)... like what happened with the Constitution Conversation (although, again, not keen on their synthesis).

Anyway, as you can see I think there should be a Panel but it needs to be selected right. That means two different ways. Either you do it by lottery like a jury, or you do it so that you get expert opinions. Now, in some senses the former is the more pure democratic idea... after all Ancient Athens* often used lotteries... and, indeed, some people argue that one of the ideas behind democracy is that no individual's opinion is worth more than anyone else's. I reject that latter notion (the lottery thing I find persuasive) in that consultation and informed decision making rely on understanding that expert opinions exist. To that end, a flag change panel should have had two vexillologists, two designers, one artist, a sociologist, an historian, a geographer and three random/lottery selected persons (one of whom may or may not be the official Maori input if it is decided that taking submissions from Maori and Maori interest groups is not sufficient). Similar things should happen with the other topics but you'll have lawyers/judges and political scientists instead of vexillologists and  designers... I would actually chuck an additional historian or equivalent into both the republic and written constitution questions. Geography can stay insofar as it is important to have someone with an idea of how space (human and natural) influences people with those questions. So, you see, I am quite keen on expert voices being the one's making the decisions. However, they need to be making decisions based on three things. One, evidence. Two, the nation's opinion. Three, a consideration of the day n+1.

When you consider this process the Flag Change Panel did not look like the above. Yet, it also made things worse in that it was composed of people too stupid to be able to make impartial decisions based on feedback received at the "long list" stage. Thus, no feedback was allowed to be given. On the other hand, they were apparently so moronic they thought a conflict of interest was no problem. Or, maybe, they're quite clever and realised the people that chose them were the real morons. Whatever. The point is that the Panel absolutely should have taken advice at this stage. Indeed, I would argue that the basic ideas were correct. That is, the options should be generated, they should be narrowed based on objective criteria (which in this case wasn't followed at all), the public should give input on the resulting short list, the panel should release a final list, voting happens. As you can tell, very quickly, though the execution made Rotten Boroughs look like transparent and fair electoral practices.

Now, when it comes to the voting parts and a mandate was not established previously you have two elections provisionally... with the latter one being dependent on two things. One, more than 50% turnout. Two, have a two question first referendum. So, in this case, we'd rank the options in Question One and then in Question Two we'd get something like, "Given that one of these alternatives would be adopted if a change were to happen, would you be in favour of changing?" If that didn't receive a majority yes vote the second referendum would not happen. If 50% of voters do not turnout it cannot be said that New Zealand has spoken and the status quo should remain, therefore also no second referendum. However, in an ideal world, planning for this would not be necessary as it would be an organic sort of thing. For reference, it looks like this referendum's turnout will be pretty much the same as with the Asset Sales (partially privatise or not referendum) one. That's not favourable because with Asset Sales you got the same turnout when everyone knew that whatever the referendum's outcome, nothing would happen. It is, of course, possible that this is because a lot of people who would otherwise vote are biding their time, waiting until they can vote for the flag they want rather than having to resort to proxy voting (i.e. voting tactically). The comparison is, honestly, fraught.

When I look at what we've done here I shake my head. I oppose change, but we had a chance for something meaningful and we threw it away. And for what? Tea towels?

*And that polis was no more or less democratic than current democracies if you listen to all those twits who try to have it both ways: either Athens was very democratic or the reason why you get to vote is not as simple as citizenship, If you're curious, the answers are "within certain parameters, yes" and "no, it's not citizenship which grants one the right to vote, hence 'certain parameters'".

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