The problem with our national dialogue

The forthcoming conclusion of the flag referendum will mark the end of one of the weariest and most dismal periods of national debate in recent times.

The rhetoric surrounding the flag debate has been, on the whole, excruciating.

Case in point, the RSA National President’s attempt to construct the flag referendum as a threat to our heritage.  In his view, the beloved national emblem needs safeguarding – presumably from the democratic choice of other nefarious Kiwis – and a change will “consign our heritage to the dustbin”.

Any skilled propagandist would be proud of this fusion of emotional blackmail and the subtle introduction of a potential menace.  All, no doubt, designed to engender a sense of urgency in the intended audience, and to ensure no one sitting on the fence sways to the other side, less they betray their own culture and historical legacy.

Given the genuine threats that many members of the RSA have faced in their armed service, it is simultaneously patronising and unnecessarily overstated for the RSA National President to use his platform and this type of language to push his agenda on such a comparatively trivial issue.

Mr Clark, without even a hint of irony, pays tribute to the brave men and women of this nation who have fought for democracy.

Even if you do not agree with the amount of money spent, or the method used to select the alternatives, there is no denying that the people of New Zealand will democratically select the eventual winner.

In the unlikely event that the alternative flag wins the day, does Mr Clark really mean to suggest that our heritage will have been thrown in the dustbin by the majority of New Zealanders?

Alternatively, would it be more sensible and charitable to suggest that we will have simply built on our storied legacy by opening a new chapter in our identity as a proud and independent south pacific nation?

All of this ‘keep-our-flag’ and ‘these colours don’t run’ posturing is symptomatic of the wider problem our society seems to have with rational calm public debate.  Why do we seem to struggle so much with the concepts of fair-concession and agreeable divergence of opinion?

The other controversial subject of the moment, the Trans Pacific Partnership, is a perfect example of the tendency for our national dialogue to be swamped by the feverish speculations of the loudest and most unyielding.

When it comes to the TPP, the chief opponents have been uncompromisingly vocal in their doomsday predictions, which – now that the text is out – seem to be largely exaggerated.  All that this hysteria has achieved is to obscure genuine points of contention with the deal.

Unhelpfully, on the other side of the fence, the TPP architects seem to go out of their way to be condescending and dismissive.  Effort that would have been better spent coming up with a plan to educate and address the public’s concerns.

Somewhere in between these diametric positions are the silent and confused majority, struggling to sift through the noisy partisan rhetoric to develop an educated view.

You only have to look to the United States to see where an ever increasingly polarised national dialogue ends up.  Demagoguery, personal attacks and outright bigotry are the accepted norm in the political sphere.  As long as you score points against your perceived opponent, anything goes.

This is not to suggest we are even close to those levels of toxicity, but perhaps we would all do well to heed the warning signs.

A healthy democracy thrives best with an engaged and informed public.  This ideal becomes ever more difficult as our public narrative drifts towards emotive sensationalism, rather than rational and fair-minded debate.

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