Vexing vexillological questions

New Zealand will go ahead with a referendum on its flag. In fact, two referenda, following a similar process to the electoral-system referenda that the country has held in 1992-93 and again in 2011: an initial selection from several choices, followed by a later binary choice between the status quo and the proposed change.* Both would be held in 2016. From ABC:

The first, at the end of next year, would ask the public to choose a preferred design from those selected by a panel of notable New Zealanders.

The second referendum would pit the winning new design against the current flag in 2016.

Stuff NZ has an image of one possible alternative, which retains the Southern Cross in addition to a fern. Another that is a silver fern on black has been widely discussed.**

The political parties will recommend members of “a cross-party panel”, and public consultations will follow, to select the options to be put to voters.

Questions for readers: Aside from the obvious (and, by all accounts, wildly successful) Canadian case, are there other democratic countries that have undertaken a major flag re-design?

There are, of course, numerous cases of authoritarian governments that have changed their country’s flag unilaterally. And, new democratic states have needed to adopt a flag (India, Israel, etc.). But ongoing democracies do not change their flags often. I can’t think of another case aside from Canada, but maybe someone else can.

An aside: is there any notable debate about the flag in Australia? Or other long-term democracies that anyone can report?

* But apparently without the first referendum having a simple “keep or change” option in addition to a set of “change” possibilities. In the 2011 electoral-system referendum, the “keep MMP” option passed, rendering the choice among alternatives moot. Thus the second-stage referendum was not held, unlike 1992-93.

** Which, to me, looks too much like the national rugby team’s banner. Or that of ISIS.

22 thoughts on “Vexing vexillological questions

  1. The flag debate in Australia corresponds roughly to the republic debate here. Only 30-40% really like the status quo but the other 60-70% are divided among various competing alternatives and determined to shoot down any proposal for change that isn’t their first preference.
    Support for the flag might if anything be slightly higher than support for the monarchy. I did notice in 1999 during the referendum campaign that a number of my fellow citizens said things along the lines of “I could probably handle changing to a republic… except that that might open the way to changing the flag, and I will never ever accept that”.
    Likewise a number seemed to think Canada was a republic. Why? Because it doesn’t have the Union Jack on its flag.
    Citing the example of Hawaii got me nowhere. This is where thinking like a constitutional lawyer diverges sharply from thinking like a normal human being. To a lawyer,a republic would be a massive change that requires a referendum (and might even require all six States to vote in favour, depending how much weight the High Court gives to the words “indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown”in the Preamble). Whereas the flag can be changed by ordinary Act of Parliament. (Howard tried to legislate to require a referendum first, but a future Parliament could either ignore this, or at most, work around by first passing any ordinary statute to repeal the referendum requirement).
    To an average citizen, however, a republic just means that a former judge or general in a grey suit is now titled “PResident” instead of “Governor-General” when they open your kid’s new school block. But changing the flag is very visible. Flags in Australia aren’t quite as widespread as Old Glory in the US but they have become more widely displayed in the last ten years or so.
    A lot of people seem to think that Australian soldiers, fighting the Imperial Japanese Army on the Kokoda Track seventy years ago, would, had they been told “The Government has just changed the flag to a gold Southern Cross on a green background,”, have responded with “Well, blow that. We’re not going to fight for THAT flag. Let the Axis overrun Australia for all we care, bomb our cities, and enslave our families. We’re not shedding our blood for anything that doesn’t have a Union Jack on it.”
    (I also had one bloke assure me over a beer that if Australia became a republic, we’d have to abolish the dole [= unemployment benefits]. Why? Because the US is a republic, and the US doesn’t have unemployment benefits. QED. He’d been to the US, and verified this with his own eyes. He’d also, it turned out, been to Ireland and liked the place but didn’t realise it was a republic too. “Hang on,isn’t Ireland part of Britain?”)
    As you can tell, I don’t think this position is very rational but we’ve all seen how much weight rationality has when it comes to national symbols and/or referendum campaigns…

    • “Only 30-40% really like the status quo but the other 60-70% are divided among various competing alternatives and determined to shoot down any proposal for change that isn’t their first preference.”
      I think recent polls would seem to contradict that view. The two held earlier this year, on a change vs no change question, had a majority against changing the flag.

  2. South Africa can hardly be classed as a long-term democracy, but they have gone through a number of flag changes. South Africa has a standard British colonial flag until 1928 when it became the first old Commonwealth country to adopt a ‘national’ flag (only if you disregard everyone but Afrikaners and English-speaking Europeans) 40 years ahead of Canada. That flag was itself replaced in 1994.

    Australia and New Zealand both have low intensity flag debates, complicated by claims that changing a flag changes the constitutional relationship with the monarchy or dishonours the war dead. In New Zealand some Maori believing changing the flag would re-open the Waitangi settlement and challenge the bicultural nature of the country.

    New Zealand at least has a reasonable consensus on an alternative design, something Australia does not have.

    The Australian and New Zealand flags are almost identical. Most Australians are shocked when they find out that the New Zealand flag is almost half a century older than the Australian flag.

  3. Taiwan has had an ongoing flag debate, and (disgraced ex-) President Chen Shui-Bian supported a change in the flag going into the 2004 legislative election (which the Democratic Progressive Party lost). If the DPP wins both the Presidency and the Legislative Yuan in 2016, which seems likely, they may be able to change the flag, but, given that the flag is the symbol of the Kuonmintang, it will be a hyper-polarising topic.

  4. Malawi controversially changed its flag in 2010, only for the old flag to be restored by a new government two years later.
    The Netherlands had a gradual change from the orange-white-light blue ‘Prince’s Flag’ commonly used in the early republic to the red-white-blue version universally used by the end of the republic.
    Spain’s flag changes, while not all under democracy, are famous, with most flag being (based on) the current red-yellow-red royalist flag, but with the republic using a red-yellow-purple tricolor in the 1930’s.
    Central American countries underwent a large number of changes in the 19th century.
    Lesotho has used three different flags since independence.
    Georgia adopted a new flag in 2004.
    Interestingly, although Nepal overthrew the monarchy a few years ago, the flag, which if I am not mistaken is full of royal symbolism, has not been replaced.

  5. Interesting, but it still seems (based on comments so far) that Canada is the only real democracy to change its flag. And I guess the flag debate is about to take on a somewhat higher intensity in New Zealand.

  6. Depending how far we equate “Russia” with “the USSR” (inheriting the nukes and the UN permanent Security Council seat being nine points of the law IMHJ), Russia.

  7. Again (to the last few comments), many countries change their flags upon a transition to democracy, a revolution, or the formation of a new state. But established democracies apparently do not–with one exception that I know of (so far).

    • Aha, qualifications noted. Quaere however whether Canada has been hovering on the edge of “formation of a new state” and that a credible threat by the Quebecois to secede was at least one factor motivating the ROC to accept removal of the Union Jack?

  8. It is true that many people felt full expression of Canadian nationhood required a
    distinctive Canadian flag, and Pearson had launched in 1963 the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to recommend what steps should be taken to develop an equal partnership between the two founding races. But “a threat to secede?” in 1964? René Lévesque was still the Liberal Minister of Natural Resources, and did not become a sovereignist until 1967. No sovereignist party had even run candidates in the 1962 election. Even by 1966 sovereignist parties got only 9% of the vote.

    • Thanks, Wilf, noted. I do recall a lot of English Canadians complaining that the Francophones had not pulled their weight in enlisting during WW2. Perhaps there were Francophone grievances that fell short of threats to secede? My information is based on anecdotal evidence from several Canadian expatriates in Australia, who can be seen to have “voted with their feet” against the post-1965 Trudeauvian “Second Dominion”.

      • Indeed, there have been many francophone grievances in Canada ever since 1840, which is why many progressive folks in English-speaking Canada wanted to adopt (along with several more substantive measures) a truly Canadian flag. A desire not shared in much of Ontario (whose provincial motto was and is “loyal she began, loyal she remains”), which promptly adopted its own Ontario flag modelled very closely on the Canadian Red Ensign, a match for the New Zealand and Australian flags. And at the very height of the Great Flag Debate in Canada’s Parliament, an NDP candidate won a by-election by saying “why are we spending so much time on a pennant when we should be taking action on the Hall Commission Report?” which had just recommended the creation of Canada’s medicare programme.

    • I suspect we would find lots of Commonwealth countries that moved from variants of the Red Ensign to other designs.Jamaica and India both adopted new flags at independence after using variants of the ensigns.

      According to Wikipedia the conservative Danes have been chugging along under their current flag since since at least 1370.

  9. The Flag Consideration Pane jas published the designs from which the final candidates will be chosen.

    Top 40 submissions.

    The silver fern is self-explanatory. The koru is a Māori symbol for life, growth, strength and peace.

    I’d mention the first referendum will use STV to choose the new design but you’d all groan and throw rotten kiwifruit at me. The second referendum will decide between the design chosen on the first referendum and the current design.

    • John Key is clearly very intent on getting a new flag.

      Would have been more consistent and fair to have a question on whether the flag should be changed at all and not have a second referendum if ‘no’ wins the first one.

      • Indeed, it could be done on the same ballot paper, similar to the electoral system referendum in 2011. At the top, there could be a yes-no question on whether the flag should be changed, and below that there could be a ballot section on choosing a flag, where voters would use STV (although some Condorcet method would be more appropriate, maybe?) to choose a flag if people vote yes.

      • The Canadian flag, by any standard, is an improvement on the unofficial Canadian Red Ensign and the official Union Jack. It was deep;y controversial at the time of its adoption, mostly for reasons which, although they now seem ridiculous, are live n Australia and New Zealand.

        I suppose one could call a referendum before the referendum to seek permission to hold a referendum, but that’s an iterative chain that leads quite quickly to turtles all the way down. Deliberation and concrete issues both matter. A choice between two actual concrete designs is fairer than an abstract question on staying the same.

        There is quite a lot of research on attitudes to sentencing in Australia, because both majors have a regrettable habit of running sentencing auctions in election campaigns. Broadly, the more abstract the question, the harsher the sentencing regime that respondents support. However, if you start talking about a relative, friend or neighbour being involved, or about specific circumstances, respondents become much more nuanced instead of advocating lock em up and throw away the keys.

        I don’t think either compressing two referendums into one or forcing an abstract choice over a concrete choice is fairer or more deliberative.

      • “I suppose one could call a referendum before the referendum to seek permission to hold a referendum, but that’s an iterative chain that leads quite quickly to turtles all the way down. Deliberation and concrete issues both matter. A choice between two actual concrete designs is fairer than an abstract question on staying the same.”

        Alan, do you hold the same about the electoral systems referendums from the 90’s?

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