Tuesday, 23 February 2016

An open letter to Richie McCaw

Dear Richie,

You're a great rugby player and I understand the reasons why so many honours have been heaped on your shoulders but I don't accept that they're deserved. I know that those who the conservative world honours almost always share its core values and it was no surprise when an over-excited John Key opened his 2014 election campaign by holding up his mobile phone and crowing - 'Richie says, yes you can.' 

(We have to assume there was an actual text from you and that it was not unsolicited.)

I’ve no doubt that at times you've found the PM's fawning fanboy attentions a bit embarrassing and tiresome - although not half as embarrassing and tiresome as many in the wider populace have found them -  and that, like many of your fellow citizens, you wish he'd grow some gravitas.  

At times I did wonder if your tacit and overt support of Key was the result of political naivety but any doubts I had on that score were dispelled by your recent decision to use your considerable influence to sway public opinion towards John Key's flag. 

And let's not be disingenuous and try to pretend it's anything other than John Key's flag. 

He wanted a fern; he wanted the flag to be black or at least to have some black on it; he expressed his preference for the black, blue and white Lockwood design; he has been pictured wearing it as a lapel pin whilst on official duties, and he set up the costly two stage referendum to maximise his spin doctors' chances of swaying public opinion - which, let's not forget - initially was overwhelmingly against flag change.

He wants the change and he wants the flag to be remembered as his flag.  And indeed it will.  It is already a symbol of an increasingly divided country so, if adopted, it will be an apt legacy indeed. 

The irony in this is that a lot of those people who are calling for flag change so that we have a flag which distinguishes us from Australia -  are the very people who would have screamed foul if a left wing government had staged such an obvious piece of political manipulation.

Can you imagine the outrage from the political right and its media mouthpieces if a left wing government, whilst preaching the need for austerity amongst the affluent, had decided to spend $26 million on a two-stage referendum intended to ensure a particular outcome - i.e. to ask people to choose a design by ranking their preferences from a skewed shortlist of designs - most of which featured the PM's preferred symbol - and then used highly influential people to manipulate public opinion into voting for the 'winning' design?

The spin doctors knew that a straight vote for flag change - especially in advance of any constitutional changes - would result in a resounding NO.  So they set up a process in a which a minority of the electorate would pick one of the fern based designs after which they would put the political machine on maximum spin cycle to try to ensure that design would win over the current flag. 

They knew there'd be a core of people who would follow the PM's lead. They also knew some people who were previously opposed to flag change would start to waver if a lot of celebrities and sports stars like yourself supported the challenger - especially as the Olympics are later this year and perish the thought that someone might mistake a Kiwi medal winner for an Australian.  And they banked on the fact that a lot of people would be  disgusted by the whole process or care little either way and they'd not vote at all.

If their calculations prove to be correct, the outcome will be that a small minority of the population will once again have imposed its narrow self interest on the rest of the country.

If this flag change had been part of an overall review of NZ's constitution and a move towards a republic I could see the logic of it.  If John Key didn't fall over himself to tug his forelock to the Queen and welcome British royal visitors to NZ, and if his government had not reintroduced a British style titular honours system, I might be less inclined to see it as a cynical rebranding exercise and a distraction and diversion from more important issues.

Like it or not, New Zealand history is inextricably tied up with British history. Our legal and our political system are all derived from the British system.  On your passport, it is the British Monarch, not the Prime Minster, who asks foreign governments to grant you entry and protection. The relationship between tangata whenua and the British Crown is a defining element of our history, culture and constitutional arrangements. The coat of arms symbolises that relationship, as does the old flag.

The black and blue Lockwood design makes no reference to it.The black is a nod to the All Black brand which has spread its tentacles into all other NZ sports brands and which originally had no symbolic national significance; the giant stylised fern frond is also a nod to sporting as well as other commercial brands; the blue (usefully much closer to the National Party blue than the navy blue of the old flag) is supposed to represent the Pacific Ocean, and only the red stars of the Southern Cross remain unchanged. 

Perhaps if this clunky design does win, when the government then embarks on the next costly exercise - that of changing all the official uses of the current flag (eg. all the insignia which feature the coat of arms) - it could make partial amends by changing the spear in the hands of the Maori warrior to the Tino Rangitiratanga flag. I won't be holding my breath.

In the context of the secret negotiations around the TPP - the signing of which arguably involves the greatest ceding of political and economic sovereignty that independent New Zealand has ever seen - the spiel about the importance of having flag change becomes even more obvious as a piece of political theatre designed to distract and divert people away from way more important issues.  We get to vote on the design of a bit of cloth that is run up a flag pole and which athletes drape themselves in but we don't get to decide on joining the TPP which, if ratified, means our sovereignty has been profoundly compromised.

You're a sportsman and a team captain; you know what it takes to get a group of individual players to work as a team. You should also know what gets in the way of that happening.  

IF it is adopted, the blue and black flag will always be disliked by a great many people in a way and to a degree that the old flag - for all its problematic history and reminders of a colonial past - never was.