How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Flag Debate

Our new flag.
Our new flag.

A lot of people are really mad about the Government trying to change our flag.

They're doing memes. Joining Facebook groups. Going out of their way to say how angrily ambivalent they are about this importantly unimportant thing.

Everyone should stop worrying and learn to love the flag debate. Here’s why.

1. This is not actually that big a deal, money-wise. National isn’t selling all our Crown assets to invest in a golden eye-patch for every retiree. The flag debate will cost $26 million. Total Crown expenditure for the year to June 2015 was around $73.1 billion. Here is a factoid: if all the flag spending was moved into the last fiscal year, the Government would have used 0.0355677% of its total budget on ‘Flag Debate’ and 99.9644323% on ‘Other Things’.

The Government is really big. It could probably save the the money it’s spending on the flag debate by switching to one-ply toilet paper at MBIE. That place already has a cool sign, an awesome LED screen and one hair-dryer. It’s flush with assets. Why should it get sweet three-ply? Maybe take care of core Government business before you take care of bureaucrat butts, Shon Key and Thievin’ Joyce.

2. Even if our potential new flag is costing heaps of money (it’s not), why shouldn't Government spend on shaping national identity? This debate seems to have turned arts and culture-loving lefties into a version of the small-Government right-wingers who say Councils should fix potholes, process waste and let libraries rot away into piles of yellowing paper and decomposing arts graduates; only with the more noble cause of child poverty in place of roads and sewers.

The Government can and should invest in real solutions for child poverty. But that doesn’t mean it can’t invest in a flag debate. It can afford to pay for two or more things at the same time.

3. The flag is actually important. People keep saying the flag isn’t important. Sure. It’s so unimportant and ‘spectacularly uninteresting’ that we’ve been talking about it non-stop for what feels like 20 years. We’re like a person trying to prove we’re over our ex by mentioning how over them we are every 14 seconds.

Many flag debate opponents seem to hold two contradictory positions:

Besides anything else, the fact that flag debate opponents are so totally steamed gives lie to that first assertion. The second is more troubling, but I would argue soldiers died for each other, their country, and the ideas it represents rather than the flag it flies. It would be nice if that flag was better suited to us, our country and the ideas it represents.

That said, if you want to be mad, there’s plenty of other much worse Government spending to stew over.

Here are some examples from the quite left-wing Green Party, with editorial by Newsworthy.

Perks for Politicians

Government spends about $1 million a year on free travel for former MPs and their spouses. If it cut that, we could afford a flag debate every 26 years instead of every 113. Make cuts to the $28,000 given to MPs and the $41,000 issued to Ministers annually to allow them to rent a house near Parliament , or the free travel their families get anywhere in New Zealand, and you can have one every five years or so. Gareth Morgan would go bankrupt, and we would all go insane.

Roads of National Significance

The Government is spending $11 billion over ten years on seven roads, which generally have lower cost/benefit ratios than public transport projects like the Auckland City Rail Link, the Greens say. On a related note, it would be really great if the Government would fund the City Rail Link.

Subsidies and Bailouts for the Fossil Fuel Industry

National has given Solid Energy more than $250 million in bailouts: $155 million in October 2013 and $103 million in September 2014. Solid Energy sells coal, which is not the most future-proofed product ever. It also gave $46 million in annual subsidies to the oil and gas industry, according to WWF.


But not everyone is a lefty. Here’s what the Taxpayers Union, an apolitical organisation run exclusively by right-wing people, lists among its worst non-flag debate spending:

Corporate Welfare

The Taxpayers Union says corporate welfare will cost taxpayers $1.344 billion this year, up from $1.178 billion in Budget 2014. It includes Government subsides for KiwiRail in those figures, along with taxpayer-funded grants to agriculture businesses wanting to install irrigation.

IT cost blow-outs

An IT cost blowout in an upgrade of the IRD’s child support systems will cost $130 million, or five flag debates.

The Saudi Sheep Deal

The Taxpayers Union really hates this $11.5 million deal, and you can too, if you want.

The point is that we go through our days in total ambivalence to far more expensive and questionable Government spending than the flag debate. If you really want to fix child poverty, you’d get the same result from cutting 641m of the $750 million Puhoi to Warkworth road extension as you would from cutting the flag debate. Alternately, you could steal 13 houses in Herne Bay.

Yes, this may take a little spotlight away from other issues. There are real concerns over the fact there are no designers on the flag change panel. But it’s happening, no matter what. It’s not that expensive. And It’s actually important! We should at least try to get something decent out of it.