Not a lot of people like our flag. And loads of people still like our Prime Minister – so the lack of enthusiasm for his flag referendum is a little odd. What’s going on there?
The consensus on left-wing twitter is that the flag referendum is just a ‘distraction’ from whatever scandal is dogging the government that news-cycle. I don’t think that’s true. I think Key really wants to change the flag. Partly because he wants a legacy but also, mostly – I think – because, as Key said on the radio the other day, he genuinely believes it will be ‘worth billions’ of dollars over time.
The billions comment was widely mocked but I think it points us to where the drive for a flag referendum comes from. Key has been pitched this idea by someone (my prime suspect is former Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts) that a new distinctive flag will ‘enhance our brand’ and ‘add value’ to New Zealand as a product. The taxpayers have probably even paid for a report on it, or at least a power-point presentation in which pictures of Canadian flag-branded maple syrup and estimates of billions of dollars in added brand value were flashed in front of the PM’s face.
The current Saatchi CEO has a spot on the flag panel – along with standard National Party stalwarts like Rod Drury and Julie Christie- but there aren’t any designers on the panel, and, as many people pointed out when the flag long-list was released, not many of the contenders really look like flags. Flags are supposed to work on a symbolic level – they speak to our history and our identity as a nation, but none of that is even part of the debate. There isn’t any debate, unless its about whether the flag will be worth ‘billions’ or not. People don’t care.
And the reason, I think, is that Key and his panel aren’t choosing a flag. They’re choosing a logo. The replacement flag isn’t supposed to speak to our identity, it’s supposed to look snappy on our export products and help consumers in foreign markets distinguish our milk powder or kiwifruit from those of our competitors. Key’s clear preference is the silver fern, not because it symbolises New Zealand but because the flag is supposed to be a form of native advertising: whenever our athletes perform the fern will be ’embedded content’ adding value to our brand.
And Key – and whoever sold him on this idea – might be right about all of that. Maybe it’s worth loads. I don’t know. I don’t really like the current flag, and I don’t have strong ideas about what the new one should be. And if we did have a big debate about ‘national identity’ it would probably be a horrible trainwreck. I’m just ruminating on why Key is doing this and why no one else really cares. People sense that the reason for the change is venal so they aren’t engaging.