Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.
The flag change referendum has been a bewildering process that seems to have satisfied few. To help make sense of what happened, here are twenty very good items on the process and result.
1. The ambivalence surrounding the flag referendum is captured best in Toby Morris’ Flag failure – Where did it go wrong? Morris feels the result is the right one, but adds “So why do I feel so rotten?” He wonders whether an improved process with a better alternative design may still have failed because, at the heart of it all, no one really knew why we were changing the flag.
2. Things began well, says Chris Keall. Sure there was no majority for change, but there was an openness to the debate that later disappeared. However, openness was also one of Keall’s Five reasons the flag-change campaign failed: “there was just too much democracy with the crowdsourcing phase. No design was too stupid or piss-taking for the Flag Panel’s site. As the more way-out designs were featured on Mashable and Buzzfeed and late-night talk shows in the US, the whole referendum process lost mana and momentum.”
3. Audrey Young says Key is correct in surmising he has enough political capital to gamble some on this issue. She argues the result will not hurt him electorally and the way the referendum was run is largely defendable. However, she notes that Key’s referendum loss is a rare mistake in which he has neither distance nor deniability: “The loss in the flag vote is Key’s to own and explain because it was his idea” – see: John Key a loser on flag referendum but not a failure.
4. There are important Lessons to learn from flag vote. Young says, in an interesting follow up column. She points out that the “call for reform is a constant feature of the political landscape and you never know when the next opportunity will present itself.” Young analyses New Zealand’s reluctant relationship with constitutional change to date and lays out a potential scenario whereby New Zealand could incrementally and painlessly become a republic. She says it is in this context we will see a change in our flag.
5. Patrick Gower and Lloyd Burr agree that the Flag fail won’t break ‘Brand Key’. Yes, they say, it will tarnish Key’s reputation but it won’t affect him at the ballot box, and as a “transactional politician” that’s what the PM really cares about. The defendably close result shields Key from the worst of the fallout and “Getting out of town is all part of John Key’s PR plan. He will chuck the Kyle Lockwood pin in his bedside drawer and wake up tomorrow and console himself with a Creme Egg. John Key has already moved on.”
6. Despite his claims to the contrary, Tracy Watkins is convinced Key must regret wasting political capital on the failed campaign. She considers a loss of mana amongst his MPs and unnecessarily adding a niggling, negative footnote to his legacy as two more of John Key’s top five regrets on the flag.
7. Legacy? Key doesn’t have one, argues Duncan Garner – see: The flagging fortunes of a leader chasing a legacy: “Key has enjoyed a tonne of political capital and the disappointing thing is that he hasn’t used it for any meaningful, lasting project.” Garner says of course losing is anathema to Key, but he has already absented himself from the worst of the fallout by cunningly timing the result for the Easter news dead zone and “shooting through.”
8. In the Guardian Toby Manhire points out the result was not an endorsement of the union jack: “It was altogether more muddled than that.” By the time the final ballot came, Manhire says it was as if “our choice amounted to something much more than pitting this flag against that flag – and at the same time much less” – see: In New Zealand, the flag remains the same. And so does everything else.
9. Danyl Mclauchlan says he’s Probably overthinking the flag debate, as he retrospectively tracks his changing thought processes over the course of the campaign. It’s a thoughtful reflection from someone who wants to change the flag, disliked the alternative, but began to wonder over time whether the left – including himself – really did hate the Lockwood flag or just hated Key.
10. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle says New Zealand’s decision on the flag has lessons for Britain’s EU referendum. He looks at how referendums promoting change usually fail and draws parallels with other recent referendums.
11. Lewis Holden was one of the leaders of the campaign for change and he seems genuinely upbeat as he looks to the future – see: The flag debate – it’s only just begun. Holden argues that, despite the result, the referendum created momentum rather than killed it, and the factors driving change will only grow. Lessons learned from this experience – particularly around the process and the fundamental need for bi-partisan support – means the writing is on the wall for the current flag: “while I predict the current flag will survive for another decade or so, it is now damaged goods.”
12. Keith Locke also says the substantial increase in support for changing the flag means it’s Not a bad result for opponents of the colonial flag: “I don’t think the referendum result was a defeat for those who supported change (including John Key). If anything if was a defeat for those political leaders on the left who were either abstentionist or said they were voting for the colonial flag.”
13. Interestingly the flag change defeat has not taken the subject of republicanism off the table for politicians. Mohamed Hassan reports that Andrew Little believes the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign would be an appropriate time to have the “conversation.” United Future’s Peter Dunne is leading the charge, saying that “newly appointed Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, should be the last, and New Zealand should have its first president by 2021 – at the end of her term” – see: Time to say goodbye to the monarchy.
14. When he announced the referendum result to a crowded pub, Chris Trotter says there were Whoops and cheers for democracy’s flag, even from many who must have voted for change. Trotter believes they were “cheering the personal discomfiture and political humiliation of the prime minister.” He says most New Zealander’s resented “being asked to participate in some sort of weird affirmation ritual”, and that resentment only increased as the flag-changing process unfolded and the “choices” on offer suspiciously matched the PMs personal preference. Trotter concludes that the current flag came to represent the “right of the people – and not a single individual – to determine their nation’s destiny.”
15. Rob Hosking has an interesting postmortem in Flag change fail: the aftermath (paywalled). He marvels at the disingenuous claims from almost all sides, and analyses what the process taught us, “or perhaps reminded us, about ourselves.” In terms of the political aftermath, Hosking believes any annoyance directed at Key “will soon flutter away.”
16. The Flag ‘debate’ always lacked substance according to Finlay Macdonald who takes issue with the oft-heard lament that the flag debate was politicised: “If anything, the process was not nearly political enough.” Macdonald argues “The resounding rejection of the alternative flag cannot be construed as a simple rejection of Mr Key – more likely, a large number of his supporters simply haven’t drunk as much of the Kool-Aid as the bulk of his parliamentary colleagues, and were still capable of independent thought.”
17. David Farrar penned his thoughts on Why the flag vote was for the status quo before the final result was announced. It’s a thorough examination of all aspects of the process and what the result means for any future attempts at change.
18. Writing before the end of the referendum Karl du Fresne says what Key “surely couldn’t have imagined was that the flag referendum would lift the lid on a seething, boiling, often contradictory mess of emotions, some of which are only tenuously connected with the flag” – see: I barely recognise my fellow New Zealanders.
19. Voting in the seven Maori electorates is covered by Audrey Young, who says the electorates were “among the 10 with the lowest turn-out – and those who voted had a much higher preference for the current flag than the general result” – see: Maori flag attitudes a puzzler. Panel member Malcolm Mulholland is reported as saying even in hindsight he is at a loss to know how they could have better engaged Maori over the process. He said the 1834 independence flag and tino rangatiratanga flag were not included at the request of Maori.
20. Finally, Steve Braunias gives us a peek inside the Secret Diary of John Key. It reveals Key’s futile attempt to convince himself the referendum result doesn’t matter: “at the end of the day I’m pretty casual about whether or not my preferred option for the New Zealand flag is taken up by the public, who are a bunch of idiots.”