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.1 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.

Notes

  1. The head of John Key wins by a landslide, and thus it becomes the new flag of the nation. True fact.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.