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Flagging up public apathy

Anyone can take a lesson in how hard it can be to convince the public of anything from New Zealand’s ineffectual, but eventful, flag change initiative

31 Mar 2016 by Olivia Wannan

There were protests and petitions, and $26m of taxpayers’ money spent, and absolutely nothing changed. My country of birth, New Zealand, has voted by referendum to keep the same flag we’ve had since 1902. What a rollercoaster ride it was.

Often much relies upon the public backing the option making the most sense. The push for the continued regulation of optics – the restriction of consumer freedom for the country’s overall eye health – will certainly need public support behind it, as will the continued expansion of community-provided optic care.

But if we Kiwis and our flag are anything to go by, it can be hard to convince the majority of the public of anything, even when you give them what they want.

The issue that began our flag saga was that New Zealand current emblem is, much like our accents, practically indistinguishable from the Australian version. Apparently, our popular Prime Minister, John Key, became sick of being seated under the wrong flag at his global engagements and thus last year kicked off a pair of referendums hoping to solve this problem once and for all.

New Zealand flag 2 option

What Mr Key might not have suspected is that by giving the public what they said they wanted – a blue, black and red flag with a silver fern much like that worn by our beloved All Blacks – would be so divisive.

It was like Marmite: you either loved it or hated it. I was part of the latter camp, and thought the final alternative design by Kiwi Kyle Lockwood looked more like a tourist-shop tea towel than an inspiring or memorable flag.

It was chosen as one of four very similar designs by a flag committee, to be voted on in the first referendum. It seemed to confirm, in my eyes at least, that wonderful saying by Mini car designer Alec Issigonis: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”

There were many like me who would have voted for change if our favourite version – or something with a bit more pizzazz – had won. However, it now seems impossible that any design would have pleased enough of the public to get the majority vote needed to win the referendum.

New Zealand flag 3 optionWith the announcement this week that nearly 57% of Kiwis voted to keep the current flag, a dejected Mr Key has conceded he will have to keeping suffering Australian-New Zealand flag mix-ups at conferences in future. 

With the recent Boaty McBoatface internet craze hitting headlines over here, I’m only left wondering what might have happened if my fellow Kiwis had been allowed to have a say on the more than 10000 designs originally submitted by the public.

Then the world might have seen the Kiwi delegation to the Rio Olympics this year led in by a Kiwi shooting lasers from its eyes. That certainly would have caught a few eyes, and have provided some food for thought – and not just for optics.

Image credit Takuta/Edward Hyde, Will Hoare, James Gray/New Zealand Government

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