New Zealand: One Nation Under a Beach Towel?

New Zealand is as beautiful as it is isolated. We live a long way from anyone and anything, and we like it that way. We have almost four and a half million people and more than five million dairy cows. We have snow-capped mountains and deep dark woods where hobbits roam, as directed by Peter Jackson in his interminable “Lord of the Rings” movies. We sing (Lorde) and act (Russell Crowe) and throw stuff (rugby balls).

The rest of the world rarely notices our country, but this month everyone — well, some people — seems to be taking note. Our green and pleasant archipelago is heading to the polls for a national referendum on whether or not to do away with our current flag and replace it with something that kind of looks like a beach towel.

The redesigned flag — a white fern leaf laid over a black-and-blue background — looks happy and foolish, not unlike our prime minister, John Key. The head of New Zealand’s government likewise has a floppy, casual charm. This is the guy whose biggest scandal came after a waitress told the world about his strange, compulsive habit of pulling her by the ponytail every time he visited her cafe.

Unlike the flag, the prime minister resonates with voters: He’s won the last three elections. Mr. Key has driven the flag-change proposal. It’s his passion, his grand project. But many people here loathe the prospect — he’s been in office almost eight years, and all we got was this lousy flag? — and wish the whole thing would just go away. It will soon. The referendum, which began March 3, ends March 24.

New Zealand One Nation Under a Beach Towel

New Zealand’s current flag was adopted in 1902. Our Olympic athletes compete under it; it flies atop our Parliament. It has served us in two world wars and is carried at somber dawn parades up and down the country when we commemorate those who died in combat in a moving ceremony that concludes with the line: “We will remember them.” These are the kinds of connections that New Zealanders want to keep.

But a corner of the flag features the Union Jack, a reference to our former status as a British colony. Critics — and Mr. Key is hardly alone on this, although neither is he surrounded — point out that this is an anachronism. It’s the silver fern that really is our national symbol, an emblem from nature, proudly displayed on the jersey of our Godlike national rugby team, the All Blacks.

It’s not an entirely terrible idea to have a new flag, or even to put a silver fern on it. But the way Mr. Key and the flag consideration panel — the flag consideration panel! — have gone about it has been pretty much entirely terrible.

First, the public was invited to design a new flag. The panel received 10,292 designs and then drew up a list of 40 contenders before unveiling a shortlist of five. Mr. Key had spoken at length about wanting a silver fern. Three of the five featured — golly! — a silver fern, and two were by the same person, Kyle Lockwood, whose designs looked pretty much exactly like each other. One nation under two beach towels.

Since he was elected prime minister in 2008, Mr. Key has generally enjoyed remarkably high levels of public support. He can do no wrong. Pull a ponytail, and the public just says, “So what?” But the tide never came in on the flag-change proposal. Polls have always heavily favored keeping the existing flag.

The cost of the exercise might have been a factor. The government spent an estimated 25.7 million New Zealand dollars on asking the public to change a flag it doesn’t want changed. Mailing ballot papers took up the greatest chunk of cash, with 17.3 million New Zealand dollars. The splendidly specific figure of 208,500 New Zealand dollars was spent on sending the flag consideration panel — the flag consideration panel! — around the country to hold “public workshops” without the public’s being all that keen on attending.

There were 25 public meetings. The average crowd was 30. Ten people came to the meeting in Christchurch and eight attended in New Plymouth. In fairness, there were other things on in both cities those nights, for instance staying indoors and staring at the wall. As for the panel members, they received 640 New Zealand dollars per day. The chairman, John Burrows, a law professor, must be a superior human. He earned 850 New Zealand dollars per day.

One of the two silver fern beach towels designed by Kyle Lockwood won the public vote to go head to head with our old flag. Which looks set to win in the referendum? It would be lame to say the answer is blowing in the wind, because the answer appears to be fairly obvious. In a recent opinion poll, 63 percent wanted to keep the current flag. Mr. Key must be tearing his hair out — or someone else’s.

Steve Braunias is the author, most recently, of The Scene of the Crime.

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