Why the flag vote was for the status quo

Later today we will get the results of the flag . I have little doubt the current flag will win comfortably. If I’m wrong, I’ll be very happy, but I don’t think I am.

As I’ve got better things to do at the start of Easter long weekend than wait for the results and write the blog post tonight, I’m doing it in advance. Why do I think the status quo won.

First of all, let me say that it is very possible that regardless of all the factors, it is more than likely the vote would have been for the status quo. There has never been a poll showing a majority for change, and few if any countries have ever ever voted to change their flag. It is normally done by fiat from Government, or as a result of constitutional change such as becoming independent.

I’m proud of the fact we are one of the few countries where we have actually got to have a vote on what our flag will be.

However it may have been a lot closer than what the actual result will be. A number of factors basically doomed any chance there was of a change. Here’s what I think they were:

Partisan Politics

If the referendum had not been been advocated by John Key, then it might have gone very differently – say if it has been a CIR.

But the parties of the left were so obsessed with a chance to give Key a loss, than they did everything possible to ensure a no vote.

Almost universally it is the more progressive side of politics that is keenest to throw away colonial symbols.  You would normally expect the biggest support to be from the Greens, then Labour, then National, then NZ First. NZ First as a nationalist party was always going to oppose any change. But look at how Green and Labour MPs declared they would vote.

Only one Green MP out of 14 and one Labour MP out of 32 are backing a change. This is purely because they see the referendum as about bashing up Key, not the best flag for NZ. It is impossible that 44 out of 46 left wing MPs really prefer a flag with the union jack over one with the silver fern.

And their supporters have gone along. If you are on the left and support a flag change, you get monstered on social media. Anyone supporting a flag change gets vile messages on social media.

Normally I would say support and opposition for a flag change would be approx:

  • National: 35 for/65 against
  • Labour 70 for/30 against
  • Greens 80 for/20 against

Instead I’d estimate support and opposition is around:

  • National 55/45
  • Labour 25/75
  • Greens 30/70

So the maths is simply impossible. National voters are divided more or less equally (Key in favour has shifted some to favour) but Labour/Green voters are almost block voting against. Unless National voters backed it 75/25 it can’t pass.

The Process

Overall the process was very sound. I do have some niggles, but the Government did everything possible to have it non partisan. Basically it was:

  1. Form a cross-party group open to all parties
  2. Have them decide broad process and nominate independent panel
  3. Select panel and have them run detailed selection process

Labour created a nonsense campaign that there should be a yes/no vote before you know what the alternate design is. This was bonkers but created lots of noise to have a backlash against the process. It is bonkers because it is impossible for peopel to vote to change the flag without knowing the alternative.

Eventually this will bite Labour as it means they can now never ever in the future hold a flag referendum without having a yes/no vote at the beginning, which will automatically fail. In fact I think there is no prospect of there ever being another referendum until NZ becomes a republic.

But I do have one significant criticism of the process. It was around selecting the short-listed flags.

I would have had the panel select three of the four (or five) flags and have them run a public “poll” to decide the 4th and/or 5th designs. They’s day these are the three we have selected and you select the last one or two. People could vote on their website, on Facebook, on twitter, via e-mail, via text. This is how flags like Red Peak could have got into the 1st referendum without a law change.

The fact the voting isn’t scientific doesn’t matter – it is only choosing one or two extra options for the referendum. If they don’t have the most support, they wouldn’t get through to the 2nd referendum. If one of them won, then it would shaw they should have been there.

I think if the panel has done that, it would have resulted in a much greater sense of ownership of the options put forward for the first referendum, and helped significantly.

The designs

I have some criticism of the final four/five designs but let me say that I think there is a large amount of insincerity from people saying they want change, but want a better design than the Kyle Lockwood one.

Can they point to any of the 10,000 designs submitted that they say was better, and had any public support at all? Red Peak trailed massively to the Lockwood designs. The Lockwood designs had a massive 82% of the vote. It is unlikely any other design would ever have won the 1st referendum.

But I do think the panel made a couple of errors with their selections, which alienated some.

The first is putting two similiar Kyle Lockwood designs forward. I know why they did this – half the panel liked the red one, and half the black one. I liked both, and went backwards and forwards on which one I preferred.

So I can see why the panel put both forward – to let the public choose which one they preferred. But the problem is that blocked another design from making the referendum, and made it look like less of a true choice,

The other critique is not selecting the design which was most like the wonderful Canadian Maple Leaf Flag. The simple silver fern on black. They let worries about it being too close to Islamic State, to stop it being selected. I think it should have been one of the first referendum options, to let NZers decide. That is the design I would most have liked to see, and still do, as our flag. It is our de facto national symbol.

So overall I’d have had five flags in the 1st referendum, and they’d be:

  1. Simple silver fern on black
  2. A Kyle Lockwood fern an southern cross flag
  3. A Koru flag
  4. Selected by public vote (maybe Red Peak)
  5. Another selected by public vote

I think that would have been a better range of choices.

The future

There will be no flag change for at least a generation, and probably longer. No Government will want to go near this again. I’d like to think NZ will become a republic in the next 20 years, but I doubt it.

The parties of the left have been hoping this will be the start of the end for John Key. I think they will be disappointed.

There certainly has been a lot of anger and opposition to the referendum and its cost. But this has been more polarising than changing people’s opinions of Key. Those who dislike him, dislike him even more. But there’s been no sign of a change in the polls, and it has been apparent for some time there will be no change. The cost has been known for over a year, and is an issue with many. It will give other parties a cudgel when the Government won’t fund something, but again they’ve bene trying to use the cudgel for the last year and it hasn’t worked.

National in February averaged 47.8% in the polls to 29.5% for Labour. A year ago it was 49.0% to 30.5% and three years ago it was 47.4% to 33.4%. So the gap has been:

  • Feb 2013 – 14.0%
  • Feb 2015 – 18.5%
  • Feb 2016 – 18.3%

The big winner from this has been NZ First. It has allowed Winston to be de facto Opposition Leader for a few months and get much more publicity than normal. NZ First has gone up consistently in the polls and may be able to stay up. They could even replace the Greens as the third largest party.

This is not necessarily good for the left (or NZ). Peters hates both Key and the Greens. He could go either way. But what he likes most is power. He is far more likely to go into a two party coalition than a three party one.In a two party coalition he can demand a policy or funding win for every bill the Government wants passed. In a three party coalition Labour can’t guarantee Greens support on any legislation, so Winston is in a weaker position to demand stuff.

Peters may get 10% next election. If he does, Labour is really only viable as a partner if they are at around 38%.

UPDATE: The result is 56.6% for the current flag and 43.2% for the alternative flag. Closer than I expected. 0.2% informal and 2,119,953 votes (so far).

Voter turnout was a massive 67.3%.

Six electorates voted for the new flag – Tamaki, Selwyn, Bay of Plenty, East Coast Bays and Ilam.

The electorates that least voted for change were the Maori seats and South Auckland.

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