National symbols and brands for the future

Where do the flag, water policy and climate change action meet? Where do they not meet? And what have they got to do with the budget?

Start with the flag. It is a symbol. It says we are South Britain, not Aotearoa/New Zealand.

The Union Jack symbolises popular enthusiasm for British-based royals William, Kate, George and Charlotte. Leading royal enthusiast John Key wants to junk the jack.

Our star, the Southern Cross (Australians north of about Brisbane can’t see it), tells the world we are deep south. Key wants to dump the cross for a fern, an all-over-the-world plant.

The Returned and Services Association (RSA) told Parliament last week the flag should not be voted on while we are commemorating soldiers fighting and dying under the Union Jack a century ago. (That is, not before 2019 and then it is the eightieth commemoration of the start of the second world war.)

Opinion polls suggest that if Key emulated republican Jim Bolger’s 1992-93 voting-system-change process the RSA would get its way.

Bolger’s first referendum in 1992 (flag-vote minister Bill English was a fresh MP then) asked two questions: whether to change and to which of four systems if the vote was for change.

Most parties think this is the right approach now. Key and English want only a choice of the flag panel’s selected options, with a yes-no vote later.

Key says the flag is not distinctively New Zealand. He has cited the All Blacks’ fern but the Islamic State has degraded white-on-black. Air New Zealand’s koru is distinctive. Canada has the maple leaf and Japan the rising sun.

But a flag is a symbol. Brand is more important. Fresh-safe-natural pitches well to middle-class Chinese.

In that context the consensus on water supply and pollution set by the Land and Water Forum (LAWF) of business, farmers, generators, councils, environmentalists, iwi and others is critical. Water — its abundance and quality — is part of the national brand.

The government has recommissioned the forum to report by September 30 on allocation and transfer of water rights (maybe including markets) to encourage the highest-value use within environmental limits. Iwi negotiations with ministers run alongside that.

In 2016 and 2017 the forum is to review how the water national policy framework is working and whether to widen its cover, then to pinpoint future issues.

English sees water as a major third-term policy issue. Fonterra and Federated Farmers have got the message.

English, a Catholic, will also no doubt have noted that a Vatican cardinal has said humans causing climate change is a “sin”.

Officials are canvassing a LAWF-type forum for future climate policy.

The government’s branding on this has been a mix of defensiveness, cost-consciousness and real initiatives. That was the mix, too, in last week’s discussion document on what commitment it should make for 2020-30 in its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to the December Paris summit.

The document heavily emphasises cost to households, almost inviting submitters to back a modest target.

This touches on English’s budget next week. Doing more than our “fair share”, which the document equates with doing more than other countries, carries in ministers’ minds a direct fiscal risk and a wider economic risk.

The document also heavily emphasises not getting too active until the “rules” are known, including accounting for gases and ability to buy other countries’ mitigation actions to offset our emissions.

But it does say the INDC should provide a clear signal of “how we intend to transition to a low-carbon economy”. And it has a section on “opportunities”. These include expanding renewable electricity generation and moving to electric vehicles.

There is a view in parts of the cabinet that this issue will go away in the next decade or two as technology transforms transport — Tesla has just produced a new battery already in very heavy demand. A cynic might call this the climate equivalent of the economics of borrow-and-hope. But technology is developing very fast.

Meantime, as the discussion document acknowledges, the INDC will need to attend to two brands.

Doing too little risks taking shine off the good global citizen country brand. Other countries will scrutinise it closely.

And processing companies for, and consumers of, our staple products will likely take note.

The implication: too much focus in the INDC on fiscal, household and business costs could have economic and so fiscal revenue costs.

But pricing a brand is slippery. The budget is about concrete matters. And English is a concrete sort of person.

Which makes his off-key role as flag-vote minister a puzzle. And a distraction from his very real budget challenges, political and economic.

* Re my April 7 column: a late-April UMR poll found 59 per cent thought Key should have gone to Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral on March 29; only 25 per cent wanted him at the world cup cricket final that day; National supporters divided 49-36.