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Flawed Referendum Process on changing New Zealand’s Flag

Flawed Referendum Process on changing New Zealand’s Flag

The flag referendum process adopted by the John Key Government is fundamentally flawed, and has several unusual features.

The New Zealand Flag Referendums Act 2015 provided for two referenda, the first selecting between four alternative flags by preferential voting, the second a first past the post runoff between the most popular alternative flag, as chosen in the first referendum, and the current national flag. The four alternative flags for the first referendum were to be selected by an independent review panel.

The first curious aspect was that the independent review panel was comprised of neither experts nor officials, nor was it independent. The panel members were chosen by the Government through a process which was entirely opaque, from candidates nominated by a cross-party group of Members of Parliament. Only one of its members had any practical knowledge of flags, and that in an amateur capacity as a prominent opponent of the national flag.

Secondly, the “independent” panel’s selection of four flags was arbitrarily overturned by the Government, which hastily added a fifth design, apparently for no reason other than that it had been vigorously promoted by a social media campaign. Curiously the Government did not respond to the much larger social media campaign against the entire process.

Thirdly, although the most popular choice for a new flag in the first referendum was Kyle Lockwood’s red, white and blue Silver Fern flag, due to a quirk of the counting process Kyle Lockwood’s black, white and blue flag was declared the winner. Coincidentally this also happens to be the Prime Minister’s preferred choice.

Fourthly, although The Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 imposes a $50,000 spending limit on advertising during a referendum, there is no such limit for these referenda. The Government and its supporters will therefore able to spend as much as they think necessary to promote changing the national flag. Spending limits are a normal part of referenda in New Zealand, designed to ensure a democratic and fair process and provide a level playing field. The only reason to remove financial restrictions is if the Government wants the entire process to be determined by money.

Fifthly, although the decision as to whether the current flag should be replaced by the preferred flag from the first ballot will be made by the public in the second referendum, the advertising undertaken by the Government referred to voters being ready to be part of history. This would only be the case if the public voted for the preferred new flag. The advertising appears to pre-determine the outcome of the second popular vote, and is therefore not neutral.

Finally, the information material distributed with the ballot papers is inaccurate. The material accompanying the second ballot paper contains a serious error and a significant omission. The New Zealand flag is described as having a "royal blue background". This is incorrect. The colour is actually navy blue. The brochure also states that the flag "was officially adopted in 1902", continuing what can only be the deliberate omission of reference to the earlier history of the flag. The New Zealand flag was of course first adopted in 1869.

The Government appears to have undertaken a process which is flawed, and also appears determined to exercise improper financial and other measures to influence the outcome.


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