Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The Politics of NZ’s Red peak

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Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

If Red Peak continues its extraordinary rise, then we might end up looking back on the last few weeks in the flag change process as a remarkable chapter in New Zealand politics. 

Imagine if Red Peak wins the flag change referendums. It’s highly unlikely, but if the underdog continues its rise and succeeds in replacing the current flag, future generations will look back on the politics of the flag change process as an extraordinary story. 

A triumph of the outsider

One cartoon nicely encapsulates how we might look back on the strange process by which Red Peak rose to prominence: It’s NZ in the year 2115 and a father holds his child beside a flagpole flying Red Peak and says “Son, your grandfather tweeted for that flag”. You can see Brendan Boughen’s cartoon in my blog post of Cartoons about Red Peak

The rise of Red Peak has involved a fascinating grassroots campaign using various online platforms that eventually resulted in Parliament voting 109 to 12 to change the law under urgency to include the outsider flag in the referendum. History would record that Radio New Zealand’s Toby Morris sparked off some rethinking with his response to the official final four flags: Flagged flags – what could have been. Alongside this, designer Rowan Simpson published a strong plea to the Prime Minister that many others were persuaded by – see: Dear John

The campaign for Red Peak hit the mainstream with Toby Manhire’s clever column, Let’s run up the red flag. A groundswell of support seemed inevitable and Manhire is widely credited as the person responsible for Red Peak’s rise. As fellow Herald journalist Matt Nippert ‏(@MattNippert) tweeted, “If we end up with Red Peak as actual flag, could I please direct all malcontented haters to send mail to: @tobymanhire, Smugsville, Pt Chev.”

But it’s online that the campaign has been strongest. The Red Peak Facebook page now has 22,637 supporters. Other sites have become important for spreading the message – in particular the Tumblr site, A New Zealand Flag. There’s even a Red Peak Shop for buying various versions of the flag. And a colourful Red Peak of New Zealand website is publishing the numerous iterations of the image. 

Cyber beltway bubble politics?

If the flag wins the referendum, many will see this victory as the triumph of a beltway cyber bubble and a descent into farce. Certainly at the moment there are many who have dismissed the appeal of Red Peak as being a beltway concern with little wider traction. This is best seen in Liam Hehir’s column, which characterises the flag campaign as “Smug little memes” simply making “a splash in the closed loops of social networks” – see: Tiny minority has its say far too late in flag debate

Hehir points to survey evidence that shows Red Peak’s unpopularity: “Red Peak was the preferred candidate of less than half of 1 per cent of respondents and just 1.5 per cent of those surveyed included it in their top four designs. In fact, of all the long-listed designs, Red Peak ranked among the least designs for all demographic groups surveyed – together with the similar looking Wā kāinga/Home. Notably, it was also the least favored flag of Māori.”

Similarly, the NBR’s Rob Hosking mocks the rise of the dissident flag: “It is driven, apparently, by New Zealand’s long historic and cultural associations with red triangles.  OK, I’ll drop the sarcasm. The red triangle flag is of course a protest flag. It’s being run by opponents of the government and of Mr Key in particular. It has little to do with national identity and a great deal with trying – hilariously and belatedly – to manufacture a defeat for the prime minister. It is bitter, it is personal, and it is also more than a bit stupid” – see: Addled silliness on the flag debate (paywalled).

Then, when Parliament passed the legislative amendment to include Red Peak in the referendum, Tim Watkin blogged to say that it makes the whole process even more farcical than it already was: “But this only adds to the farce. Now, the process of a selected panel, months of public consultation and a long and short list has been completely undermined by an online protest campaign. It admits that all those empty town hall meetings counted for nothing, because all that really matters, it seems, is those who speak via social media” – see: Red Peak, red faces – flag turns into a farce.

He also doubts that the mania will catch on: “Red Peak feels like the Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump of flags; really popular amongst true believers, but really not as big a deal as is made out. It seems like these days if you can get a little group to make enough noise, amplified by social media, then you are given credit for capturing the national mood, even when you represent only one or two percent.”

Labelling the inclusion of the new flag in the referendum as “weak governance by twitter”, Watkin reflects wider views that political parties and governments yielding to online campaigns can be problematic.

Blogger Cameron Slater agrees: “Watch for other designers to now attempt to halt the process with a judicial review.  It is ridiculous.  A little bit of pressure on social media, some shameless politicking by Labour and Andrew Little followed up by Media Party advocacy and our PM turns into a complete blancmange.  We elect our politicians to show some leadership not cave at the slightest bit of pressure.  We actually don’t need an opposition now. All that needs to happen to get anything to happen is to get a few rowdies on Twitter to create a hashtag and the Media Party to push the bandwagon and voila… law changes… under urgency no less.  It is an abuse of process, an abuse of parliament and an abuse of leadership” – see: Gutless Key caves to Twitter mob and Media Party pressure.

Such criticism will be bolstered by the arguments about the cost of including the fifth flag – see RadioLive’s Red Peak inclusion to cost taxpayers $400k.

In response to “cyber beltway bubble” critiques, Toby Manhire suggests that, in fact, the online surge of support for Red Peak is much greater than for the other flag alternatives: “A social media bubble? Well, more than 35,000 have signed the online petition; 20,000 followers on the Red Peak Facebook page is not to be sniffed at – it’s more than three times the number following the official flag project page. When the flag panel roadshow attracted tiny audiences around the country, we were assured not to worry: the engagement would happen online. It certainly is now” – see: Red Peak design warrants place on flag ballot.

Red Peak’s rise helped National and John Key 

It’s a common assumption that John Key’s U-turn on Red Peak is yet another defeat or an embarrassing compromise. In fact, it has probably given the flag change process its biggest boost yet, partly revitalising a failing project. 

Audrey Young has written that the Backdown on Red Peak flag won’t harm John Key. She outlines how the deal happened and explains how National benefits, not just from adding “some much needed vitality to Key’s flagging referendum process”, but because it also upset Labour. 

Andrea Vance suggests the decision helped get National out of a hole: “But this is also a handy get-out for Key.  He painted himself into a corner over the Twitterati’s favourite ensign.  National could have added Red Peak off his own bat weeks ago, but allowed a churlish spat with Labour to get in the way” – see: Flag debate: Greens reap rewards of Red Peak move.

Even Toby Manhire says that the inclusion of Red Peak helps rescue National’s project, saying “I think it just returns a kind of vigour and legitimacy to the process,” – see Lauren Priestly’s ‘Unfurl the fifth flag’ says Herald columnist.

Labour lost out and lost its chance

Labour and Andrew Little may be seen as the real victim of how Red Peak eventually got included in the referendum. As Audrey Young says, “Labour has been the loser so far. It has opposed the flag referendum despite having policy to do the same, has been interminably outraged by a process that isn’t outrageous, and despite the leader liking Red Peak, refused to help it on to the ballot. The Greens did that.  And, on cue, Labour was very, very upset about the Greens dealing with National” – see: Backdown on Red Peak flag won’t harm John Key.

Claire Trevett has elaborated on Labour’s difficulties: “Labour’s Andrew Little was also in a pickle. He did not want to help get Key out of his pickle but, having called for Red Peak to be included himself, nor could he then turn around and oppose measures to allow that to happen. Added to that, Labour had criticised the flag process from day one and did not want to lose face by buying into it now” – see: Political plans turn to custard in battle of flags.

It didn’t have to be this way, says Chris Keall, who suggests that “Little is missing a chance to take control of the referendum – and maybe – just maybe – play a key role in ushering in Red Peak as New Zealand’s new flag. Now that would be an upset people would remember in 2017” – see: Little just walks into Key’s trap

Meanwhile Little and Labour have received a lot of bad press for their manoeuvring on the issue. The Herald has argued that Little should lighten up on flag options, and points out that Labour’s position has never been as clear as other parties. 

Rightly or wrongly, Labour are widely seen to be playing politics over the Red Peak issue. See, for example, Gareth Morgan’s analysis: “The latest demonstration of petty mindedness from a political quarter comes from Andrew Little who, when faced with the question of whether Labour would support the government in adding a fifth entry to the first referendum, couldn’t resist petty point scoring.  He stated he’d would support a fifth flag, but only if the PM moved the question about whether New Zealanders want a flag change to the first referendum. That’s the response of a political brat, rather than someone concerned with getting the outcome New Zealanders want” – see: Digging in – Stale Mates Worsen Flag Mess.

Red Peak lifts the Greens, but creates ill feeling

The Greens will be remembered as the party that championed Red Peak. Their pragmatic deal-making over the issue will be well regarded by some voters. According to Andrea Vance, “This is a shrewd move for his party, who are trying to position themselves as Parliament’s new pragmatists, ready to find compromise with any other party” – see: Flag debate: Greens reap rewards of Red Peak move.

Greens blogger Danyl Mclauchlan draws a parallel between the party’s compromise with that of John Key’s landmark decision to support the so-called anti-smacking bill when he was leader of the Opposition – see: On the Green’s Red Peak deal. Mclauchlan concludes: “People are saying that they’ve played into Key’s hands, and so on, just as some in National said of Key’s deal with Clark.… The Greens ‘did’ something, which is hard to do in opposition and some persuadable voters will give them points for it.”

But there are many – particularly on the left – who are angry with the role the Greens played over Red Peak. Nicholas Jones reported in the Herald that there was “simmering anger” in Labour towards the Greens because of the deal – see: It’s official: Red Peak to be included in flag referendum. Trevor Mallard was particularly condemning of what he saw as the Greens’ dishonesty and hypocrisy – see Nick Grant’s Red Peak to fly in first ballot.

The most stinging criticism of the Greens comes from normally Green-sympathetic Gordon Campbell, who outlines why the deal was an unprincipled mistake: “In one fell swoop the Greens’ Gareth Hughes has (a) rescued Prime Minister John Key from his personal flag fiasco (b) got the government out of a tight corner of its own making (c) agreed to vote with National to block Labour’s attempt to get a yes/no question added to the November referendum and (d) handed the Key government a club with which to beat the only other party – Labour – with which the Greens can hope to form a government in 2017” – see: On the Greens bad deal over the flags.

Campbell sees this as the Greens “playing the populist card” (but ineptly by backing an unpopular flag) in a way that will add legitimacy to perceptions of the Greens becoming closer to National.

In reply to such criticisms, the No Right Turn blogger has defended the Greens and suggested Labour’s orientation to it’s potential coalition partner is not healthy: “the Greens have consistently supported the flag process from the beginning (while trying to improve it, as is their way).  That’s obviously not Labour’s position. Big deal. They’re different parties, so they disagree. And if Labour were adults, they’d accept that and move on to talking about how they can work together on the huge areas of political ground where they do agree. The fact that they can’t, and that they’re still demanding absolute subservience from their potential partners, is exactly why they’re unfit to be in government” – see: Red Peak and poutiness

More from the beltway bubble about Red Peak

Since the Red Peak phenomenon is so closely associated with the “cyber beltway bubble”, it’s worth having a look at some other recent online advocates for the outsider flag. 

Oxford philosophy professor Josh Parsons – previously at the University of Otago – puts forward an interesting argument for Why I support the Red Peak Flag

Russell Brown says he’s happy with the inclusion of Red Peak, but still protests the whole flag change process – see: The positive option of Red Peak.

Lachlan Forsyth explains why he supports the dissident flag – see: Dude, where’s my democracy?

Henry Oliver gives a wider perspective, drawing on lessons from South Africa – see: Seeing Red (Peak): flawed processes

And Chuan-Zheng Lee asks: Where did Red Peak come from?

Finally, for more satirical commentary on the evolving flag change process – going back over a year, and dozens of cartoons, see my

long-running post of Cartoons about changing New Zealand’s flag

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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