Referendum? I’d prefer a proper conversation!

The results of the New Zealand flag referendum are in. And the change is no change. So, that’s the end of it then. We can sit back in the knowledge that there’s overwhelming support for our trusty old colonial relic. Well, no. There was a 56% vote for the current flag, that’s only ‘overwhelming’ if you’re a TVNZ sub-editor who’s too lazy to read the results or understand polling.

It’s settled nothing. Did the flag win because it’s the one we want or because the alternative wasn’t up to the job? I voted for no change but I don’t support the old flag, or what it stands for. I just don’t want the new one. Not that new one, at least. As my nephew put it, “keep the old one and change it for the right flag later”. A sentiment I heard many times.

Voters in the Maori electorates were the staunchest supporters of the old flag. Why? It’s hard to really know but anecdotal comments from friends and their friends suggest many Maori felt it’s not the right flag and there’s more important stuff to worry about. I agree.

So, when push comes to shove, it’s cost us $26 million to find out we prefer what we’ve got, complete with its colonial hangover in the top left corner, to a Weetbix box. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

National have said that’s it, no further action under their watch. Well, perhaps their watch won’t last much longer because this issue isn’t going away. And that’s my point. The whole process around this referendum has left a bad taste. It felt like a set-up, the prime minister’s personal whim. Then the supposedly transparent commission evaluating the designs dumped a load of good ones and came up with this dog’s breakfast.

But enough’s been said about that already. My point was that referendums don’t work. And they don’t. As a politician, you don’t call one unless you’re going to win (oops, who forgot to tell John Key that bit?). Then you pitch two binary positions against each other, dumbing down the issues to a simple A/B. Never mind the complexity or the nuances of the debate, all you get is a stark often unsatisfactory choice between two extremes. Look at Scotland: stay or go. But stay has meant moving further away from the union anyway and the big question has hardly gone away. Look at the UK’s EU referendum, the mind-numbing petty arguments and false-flags dominating the lack-of-debate-soundbites around Brexit. Another binary choice where fixed-minds are bullying glazed-eyes into submission. On both sides.

So, back to the flag. No, it’s not settled. What if the ‘right’ design had been on the ballot? Actually, what if the process had been designed properly in the first place?

We crowd-sourced the designs and then closed the doors. The selection process was a huddle in a darkened room. And it came up with options no one really wanted. Except John Key. What a fantastic example of how to completely mess up public engagement (and, if you happen to be PM, demonstrate your lack of connection with the electorate, but that’s another matter). The New Zealand government completely messed up what could have been a uniting and empowering national process. Sure, there would have been arguments but that’s healthy. We’re not carbon copies of each other and vigorous debate is better than damped down consensus every time. Instead we got a great example of power not trusting the public. John Key trying to lead us by the nose to his answer. Sounds too familiar, eh, David, Boris, Nigel? The problem with Kiwis though, is we never really did fall for that old game. We picked MMP as our voting system because the big noises with the obvious self-interest didn’t want it.

It’s time to stop having referendums and start having conversations. Proper conversations! If these things are so important, surely we deserve better? If they’re so important that two-thirds of New Zealanders and eight out of ten Scots went out and voted, then don’t the big issues demand the maturity and respect that a fully engaged, deliberative process can bring? Same goes for this Brexit debacle but that horse has bolted.

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  1. June 27, 2016

    […] many have pointed out referendums can be seen as a poor democratic mechanism. They are binary. They can encourage […]