The two weeks following the outcome of the second referendum on the national flag have been notable for one thing — the pro-change brigade’s clutching at straws.
We have been told the result was a lot closer than had been expected.
Likewise, it has been suggested that there might have even been a majority for change had there been a better-designed alternative on offer.
Furthermore, many Labour supporters had heeded their party’s advice not to vote for change in order to give John Key a bloody nose.
In turn, it was claimed that people did not vote for change because Key had “politicised” the referendum process. That process was flawed. People had been annoyed about the$26 million cost of the flag referenda.
All in all, the second referendum had revealed there was actually now a real mood for change which would only intensify over time. And so on.
All this post-hoc rationalisation of the result by the pro-change lobby could not disguise the blunt truth. Key and company suffered a real drubbing.
The respective voting figures of 57 per cent in in favour of keeping the current ensign against 42 per cent wanting a different flag were almost identical to the result of the 2011 referendum which produced a similar majority in favour of retaining MMP. No-one suggested the latter outcome was in anyway close.
The likely impact of the rejection of an alternative will be to shove the matter of the flag under the umbrella of the far wider debate over whether New Zealand should become a republic. And that debate does not look like happening any time soon.
To the contrary, the defeat suffered by pro-change enthusiasts will likely have only further delayed that monarchy versus republic debate.
More than likely, Key will emerge unscathed from the whole affair. But the lesson for him and all other politicians is that there is no political upside in trying to spearhead any fresh initiative to change to the national ensign.But there is a big risk of a lot of political downside. So why take that risk?
Any new initiative will have to be people-driven rather than politician-led.
Whether the flag does ever change may now hinge on what Australia does. If our trans-Tasman cousins choose republicanism — which they will probably do sooner rather than later — then New Zealanders may feel obliged to think about following suit.
Much hinges on whether the atmospherics alter after the Queen eventually dies or hands over the reins to Prince Charles and whether his eccentricities prevail and become tiresome. He is now in his late sixties and his reign could be short or not even happen. The swift ascent of Prince William to the Throne would likely stifle any nascent debate on cutting formal ties with the monarchy.
Even were such a debate to get under way, it would be very tentative.
The two year old report by the Government-appointed constitutional advisory panel got no further than recommending the Government “actively support a continuing conversation about the constitution by ensuring people can find out more about the current arrangements and about options for our future”.
Well, hold the front page. The panel’s caution was understandable, however. The near impossibility of getting any kind of consensus on such constitutional matters as becoming a republic, having a written constitution, strengthening the Bill of Rights, enhanced Maori representation in Parliament, and lastly, the role of the Treaty was highlighted by a Government-backed conference entitled “Building the Constitution” which was held in Wellington in 2000.
One constitutional expert, Professor Philip Joseph, who was a key speaker at the conference and is not someone prone to hyperbole, described the event as a “spectacular failure” because every session imploded on the same issue: the place of the Treaty in any written constitution.
Nearly two decades onwards, the Treaty has unquestionably become integral to the country’s unwritten constitution.
There will be great reluctance to go down the road to a republic if that resurrects bitter argument about the role of the Treaty and the relationship between Maori and the Crown, or more pertinently, what would replace it.
It is more than tempting to say if it ain’t broke why fix it.
It is notable that the vote favouring a change of flag was lower than 26 per cent in six of the seven Maori seats and thus way behind levels recorded in the general seats.
Maori are being very smart. They fear that any change in the flag could be the thin end of a very big wedge which might threaten their rights and interests.
That seems unlikely to happen given the obvious reluctance of the wider population to engage in any serious discussion on cutting ties with the monarchy.
But Maori clearly believe they should do all they can to ensure there is little or no chance of such a debate occurIng — at least in the short and medium terms.