Tag: flag referendum

Flags flags flags!

It's flag referendum time (part one of two), and a number of conspiracy theories around the process are still making the rounds. I've already covered the quasi-legal unwarranted conspiracy theory that is DUE AUTHORITY, but a number of freshly minted constitutional scholars have arrived on the scene, with theories conspiratorial. Let's take a gander.

Note: If you want actual legal advice about the referendum, what you can and can't do, and what spoiling your cote means, read Graeme Edgler's post over at Public Address. He knows what he is talking about.

Couldn’t the government decide to change the flag anyway?

They sure could. They could decide to change the flag to a literal cocker spaniel called “Derrida”, and sent Derrida on trips overseas when the flag needs to be flown. Frankly, the government could do a lot of things, and changing the flag is probably the least of our worries (unless you’re concerned about Derrida).

The worry that the new flag design has been secretly finalised (some have even suggested the new flag is already being mass produced), and the vote is either a farce, or the Government will ignore the result and change the flag in a few years, suggests some conspiracy by the National Government to get its desired result (i.e. John Key's wish to have a new flag with a Silver Fern on it). Now, John Key's love of the Silver Fern and his constant push to get New Zealanders to recognise the symbol of the All Blacks (and other teams) is really our national symbol is certainly embarrassing. The Flag Consideration Panel really did not seem to do much of a job when it came to selecting flag options. It's all rather obvious there is an agenda in place to push a particular idea of a flag on the public. However, is this a conspiracy, or just a really obvious PR move by interested parties? It does not seem particularly covert or secretive.

So, might we get a new flag hoist upon us no matter the referendum result? We might; governments govern and thus can do that kind of thing. Will the government (or whoever happens to be pulling the strings) pervert the vote? That's a more interesting question. If they are, they'll need to be careful and ensure the results of the referendum match the various public polls which have been taken, which at the moment do not show any real push to change flags next March. Then again, any powerful government worth their salt could surely influence the polls. The question is, do you think we have that kind of government? Recent history seems to indicate they are more a slipshod set of operators merely reacting to recent polling than they are master manipulators.

Why is the referendum in two parts? Isn’t that suspicious? Aren’t they forcing us to make the decision they want?

No. The reason why the referendum is split in two parts is to allow us to decide on a new flag design independently of the vote as to whether we want to change flags.

Okay, but surely we should ask whether we want a new flag first?

No. Indeed, a thousand times “No!” Asking “Do you want a new flag?” before deciding on a new flag design would be both pointless and probably would generate good grounds for a conspiracy theory.

Imagine if the public were overwhelmingly in favour of a new flag, and the first referendum asked “Do you to replace the current flag?” The public votes “Yes”, because that’s what they want. The government reveals the four or five options, of which two are variants of the swastika, one a picture of a penis, another of John Key’s head, and the last option version of the U.S. flag with one extra star. How would you feel then? The country has said it wants to replace the old flag, but all of the new flags are offensive in some way, shape or form. ((The head of John Key wins by a landslide, and thus it becomes the new flag of the nation. True fact.)) People would start coming up with conspiracy theories galore, suggesting that the rigged process was all a plot by the National Party to, say, make John Key perpetual dictator of the country. Frankly, if I lived in that world, I'd certainly suggest that.

This is the reason why the referendum is playing out as “Which flag?”, followed by “This one for sure?”. It means that people know what they are voting for or against when it comes to deciding on a new flag to somehow represent this nation.

Okay, but what about them barcodes?

Some people have noted that the tearaway slip/actual ballot paper has a barcode on it which is the same as that associated with their address on the voting instructions paper. This, they claim, show that the referendum is not anonymous, and thus the government is likely tracking their data/harvesting their information/working out who voted for what/et cetera. It all suggests something very shady.

Except it doesn't. The two barcodes, which are unique per paper (I believe) are part of the complex system in place to ensure voter fraud does not occur. I.e. One person; one vote! You can't just generate a whole bunch of ballot papers to skew the vote, because each paper is linked to an enrolled voter. This is the same system that we use in the General Election, and its part of the design of our rather secure democratic process. Yes; if someone gets hold of your ballot slip and the piece of paper with your address on it, they would be able to see which flag you voted for. And yes, the Electoral Commission could find out what flag you voted for in the case of a recount or a spot check. However, this is unlikely to occur, and the ballot papers themselves, once counted, will be locked away for six months and then destroyed (I believe).

This is all perfectly normal; the people counting the votes/feeding the results into a computer will not see your address. The results will not be presented as "X voted for Y". The only time the barcodes will likely be checked against voter registration records will be if fraud is suspected. Just like in a General Election.

Isn’t the referendum just a waste of money?

Everything in a capitalist democracy costs money. Postal referenda in particular are expensive.

Yeah, but couldn’t this money have been used elsewhere? Like for [Insert cause]?

Yep. However, changing the flag was always going to cost money. But imagine how expensive the process of becoming a republic could be? Do we give up on causes just because they might cost a bit of money?

The obvious conspiratorial claim here is that the referendum is a distraction from some other issue, with the money spent on the referendum a convenient way to point out the hypocrisy of the current government. After all, they could be looking after X instead.

They could. Then again, the everyday process of democracy under capitalism is a tension between spending money on X or Y. Every Budget we get, we analyse the government's spending priorities and say "But why fund X over Y?" But typically that's not the result of an explicit conspiracy; it's rather a difference in priorities between different groups of people. People like the Prime Minister really want a new flag (but are a bit cold on the idea of becoming a Republic), and so – in their reckoning – an important national conversation should take into account the national symbol of the country, the flag. Maybe we could subscribe that prioritisation to the PM being under the thumb of Big Flag or business interests who will benefit from costly rebranding exercises. Then again, we could just admit that the PM has some very weird priorities, and his position in Cabinet gives him the leverage to pursue those priorities.

Seriously, though, what about [Insert cause]?

Look, if we’re going to play “But what about x?”, then it’s never going to be the right time to have any kind of talk about our national identity, because any public consultation will cost time and money. Sure, said money would have benefitted a number of worthy causes, but Aotearoa/New Zealand is very gradually making moves towards full independence, and the time and effort spent on those moves can always be countered by “But what about x?” Just think: when we have a national discussion about the future Republic of Aotearoa/New Zealand, some people (let’s imagine they are on the Right) will complain about the money being used to consult Māori on how to establish a bicultural republic based upon the principles derived from the Treaty of Waitangi. These people will likely say “But what about x?” to justify claiming the money could have been spent elsewhere/on nobler things.

Bottom line: we live in a capitalist society, and democracy is expensive. That's not a conspiracy; that's just how it is.

With due deference, the DUE AUTHORITY flag conspiracy theory is rubbish

If you are a New Zealander, and you have access to either Twitter or Facebook, then you will doubtless be aware that there is a particular conspiracy theory going around about our flag referendum which suggests changing the flag is a much bigger deal than John Key and friends are letting on. You might, for example, have seen this image doing the rounds:


One of the more fulsome accounts of this conspiracy theory can be found at Ben Vigden’s site here. It starts thusly:

The nature of heraldry dates back to feudal times when the flags where not just things you waved but a coat of arms stated to whom you pledged allegiance to. It showed what your rank was, entrenched your legal status from what power or Due authority your knight exercised his rights and privileges, the Crown or the State. One of the frustrating things about the change being made to the NZ flag is that no one has considered that change of heraldry and how it impacts on the very notion of DUE AUTHORITY.

Notice the all-caps. There is a lot of Freeman on the land to this thesis, which is to say it relies on some fairly weird pseudo-legalistic framework in order to work.

The nuts of the theory really is this:

A change of flag means not only that we have taken a major step to removing the DUE AUTHORITY of the crown. It also means we take away the very power which enforces both the 1990 Bill of Rights Act (the closest thing NZ has to an entrenched Constitution) and the founding plank upon which the Treaty of Waitangi has meaning. It does not matter if your pro or anti monarchy but if you take away the DUE AUTHORITY of law (which includes our flag) you then open the gates of hell or to be precise the means in which John Key can legally sign the TPPA (Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement), Currently if the matter was taken to court it would undoubtedly end up at the Supreme Court.

Herein lies the issue: apparently changing the flag is a constitutional issue such that by removing the symbol of the British Crown from the flag of our nation state, we take away due authority of the Crown we pay allegiance to. Let’s unpack this.

  1. The DUE AUTHORITY conspiracy theory conflates and confuses the idea of the British Crown and the notion of the Crown itself.

    The authority of the Parliament in Aotearoa/New Zealand comes from it being sovereign. An interesting quirk of tradition has it that our laws need the assent of the representative of the British Crown (which in our case is the Governor General). The role of the Governor General is something many New Zealanders are eternally confused about. Almost every time a law is passed that sections of the public think is “the worse thing ever!” someone will assert “Well, the Governor General doesn’t need to assent to it.” The idea is that as laws need the assent of the Crown (here symbolised as the Queen’s representative, the Governor General), the Governor General can essentially veto laws by refusing to sign off on them.

    Except the Governor General can do no such thing. The New Zealand Parliament is sovereign, and the assent of the Governor General is automatic. In this respect, the Crown is Parliament. Historically it got its power through the British Crown, but the British Crown is now but a figurehead, constitutionally. As it stands, when we refer to the “Crown” in New Zealand law, we are not referring to the British Crown. Rather, we are referring to Parliament. Which is to say that removing the symbol of the British Crown (presumably the corner we call the “Union Jack”) from our flag really means nothing whatsoever. Changing the flag would not suddenly make Parliament any more or less sovereign than it currently is.

  2. The DUE AUTHORITY conspiracy theory takes it that changing the flag changes our constitutional conventions.

    Given that Parliament is sovereign, if Parliament changes the flag, then nothing really changes (other than getting a new, and possibly not much better flag). The authority of the state has not come from the monarch of Great Britain for quite some time. As such, a change in flag will not make it easier for the government to sign the TPPA. That is because – at the moment – all Cabinet need do is agree to the text of the TPPA, and sign it for it to come into effect. For sure, Parliament will then need to pass laws which take our new international agreements into consideration, but even if we keep the current flag, the British Crown (via the Governor General) will not be stepping in to say “No!” ((Indeed, I can imagine the British Crown just shrugging her shoulders and saying “Whatev, peeps. Liz don’t worry ’bout that kind of thing. Peace out!”))

Let it not be said that I am unsympathetic to worries about how the TPPA is likely to be signed; I oppose the current leaked text of the TPPA (Like Prof. Jane Kelsey, I’m not entirely against free trade agreements in principle, but I am against this one in particular). I am even suspicious about the current flag referendum (after all, isn’t it convenient that a well-paid panel chose three preferred-by-the-PM – the same PM that initiated the referendum – fern designs?). However, I just don’t see there being some sinister conspiracy by the PM and his cronies to make it easier to sign the TPPA; it’s easy enough for them to sign it as it stands without the hassle of changing flags. ((Indeed, if this is a sinister conspiracy, it’s potentially a really risky one. What if people vote to keep the flag? Then what happens? Do our plucky set of conspirators then assassinate the Governor General in order to keep him from refusing assent? Do they end up introducing fluoride into the Buckingham Palace water supply in order to make the Queen docile? It seems really very risky.)) Our constitutional convention currently has it that Cabinet can sign such agreements without even having to debate them in Parliament. It’s also not the case that the Governor General could refuse assent to any legislation which enables the TPPA. As such, that little slice of the British Crown in our current flag means nothing other than a constant reminder that we are a colonised country.

And that might be reason enough to think changing the flag is a good idea. Not because being reminded that this place is colonised is a bad thing – we should spend more time thinking about colonisation and its effects – but because a new flag might well be a remedy to the salt-in-the-wounds many Māori feel when looking at that symbol of colonisation. But that’s a separate issue from the TPPA. That’s the thing; just because we’re suspicious about the TPPA and the process around the flag referendum, that does not tell us that they are in any way linked. Indeed, understanding our constitutional conventions really shows that they aren’t.