Opinion: Why can’t we have a flag dialogue?

New Zealanders have forgotten flag debate should be about the flag – and not about everything else they don’t like about politics.


Virginia Goldblatt

by Virginia Goldblatt

The increasing animosity around the flag “debate” has demonised some unlikely candidates of late  – Richie McCaw, and Dan Carter for example, not to mention the arch villain of them all John Key, also the most consistently popular Prime Minister in New Zealand’s history.

How did this happen? How did we go from a place where most New Zealanders wanted a flag that better represented them in the 21st century; from cross party political support – this was Labour’s policy before it was National’s; and from a powerful desire to be able to look at the flags raised in major sporting stadia all over the world without vainly hoping the audience could tell our flag from Australia’s; to where we are now. It appears that most New Zealanders have forgotten the flag debate was about the flag and made it about everything else they don’t like about politics or society.

Perhaps this is happening because we stopped focusing on interests and focused on positions instead. We lined up people (the ones we didn’t like) and made it about them. Then, following the logic of the revolution, we soon started lining up people we did like as well (sorry, Richie! sorry Dan!)  We haven’t confined our strong feelings to parliamentary debate and media commentary but have taken it into our homes and extended it to our friends. On an issue that was supposed to unite New Zealanders, tolerance has been in short supply.

So it is hopeless then? Is our stubborn refusal to do what a majority of us once wanted to do and change the flag, a refusal that has increasingly little to do with the flag itself, unresolvable or is there some way to recalibrate the discussion and make more positive use of this opportunity?

In mediation people are often asked to focus on their shared interests, the things they have in common. Disputants can usually remember a past time when they did get on and there were things they agreed about. If so, they may be willing to apply that understanding to their present difficulties.

If we were to do that here we could remind ourselves of what many of us really care about and try to promote dialogue instead of discord. Even if the flag can’t bring us together, at least the way we talk about it might improve.

It seemed for some time that  most of us wanted a new flag – a flag that represented the country we are now, not the one colonised by Britain in the 19th century. We also liked the Silver Fern and we felt that was us, not only those of us who watch sporting teams with it on their chests, but also  those who have seen images of  battlefield cemeteries like those on the Western Front where it appears on every young New Zealand soldier’s grave from the 1914-18 War. Some of us even liked a similar Kyle Lockwood flag design when it first appeared in various publications a number of years ago. We were better at focussing on future generations as well as previous ones and talked about the kind of flag we wanted our children to grow up with.

If most of us still agree on those things – and probably many more – which are about the flag itself, then why are we rejecting the chance we now have to celebrate them?

Perhaps we need to use another mediation technique – the reality check. If we do not vote for this change in 2016 we will be left with the old flag, the one most of us felt no longer represented New Zealand, for a very long time. The process might not have been problem-free but that can’t be changed (set realisable goals); the alternative flag may not be perfect (nothing is); nor our particular first choice (unanimity was never a criterion for decision making here); but does it serve our identified shared interests better than the only other one we have on the ballot paper, the old one?

Ken Cloke, an internationally recognised mediator, says that revenge is the willingness to hurt yourself in order to injure someone else so, before you vote in the referendum, consider the options, think about the flag you want to see for foreseeable future, and vote positively.

Make this about the flag.

Virginia Goldblatt is the director of the Massey University Mediation Service.

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