Thursday, March 24, 2016

Unpopular Opinion: The Flag Debate Hasn't Been A Huge Defeat For Key

There's an engorged sense of triumphalism on the Left, which insists upon seeing even minor setbacks for the ruling party's agenda as huge and dramatic victories in the ongoing war against neoliberalism.

Perhaps it's because we're so starved of wins elsewhere (particularly electorally). Maybe it's because the Opposition are natural optimists (and going up against a National-led government that looks set to enter its fourth term, you presumably have to be in order to keep fighting).

Whyever it happens, various opponents of the present Government spent quite some time seizing upon lackluster polling results in support of flag-change as tacit evidence that Key's Reign of Error was soon to be over.

In speech after speech, Winston and an array of others soared in rhetorical flights of fancy about how Key's ill-conceived and quite literally ill-starred flag-change "vanity project" was sure sign that Key was out of touch, out of luck, possibly out of his mind, and soon to be out of office.

I'm not going to deny that some of these things are arguably true, but with a margin of victory for the Old Flag against the Lockwood design narrow enough that a mere 6% swing would have won it ... if Key's out of touch with the Electorate on these sorts of issues, it's by mere meters rather than miles.

The numbers, as they stand, are 1,200,003 voters - 56.6% - in support of the Old Flag, versus 915,008 - 43.2% - for the Lockwood. Turnout was 67.3% - slightly more than ten percentage points lower than that of the 2014 General Election.

This low turnout will inarguably have helped the Prime Minister's preferred option. Particularly in postal ballots, the people who care more about an issue are the ones who are likely to turn out. The rest of the 'quiet majority' who didn't bother to vote may potentially disproportionately support the 'status quo' of keeping the flag; but even factoring that in, it's difficult to reconcile the polling and prognostications of political leaders and pundits (including this Newshub/Reid Research poll cited yesterday showing the Old Flag ahead of the Lockwood by a whopping thirty percentage points) with the comparatively close margin of victory enjoyed by the Old Flag in the actual referendum itself.

It's also difficult to square the referendum's result with Winston's claim upon hearing the numbers that this represented a "rout" for the Prime Minister.

This isn't a full-scale, disorganized withdrawal for National. And certainly not a 'white flag'. Instead, in tactical terms at any rate, at best it represents a "retreat in good order". Key's personal popularity may potentially take a hit - but partially due to National's own effectively divided internal stance on the issue, it's certainly conceivable that National's brand overall will suffer relatively little harm.

Instead, "flag debate", "vandalize our [flapping] heritage", "tried to get rid of the flag", and "vanity project" will be destined to become the sort of also-ran Leftist barely rallying-cries that "Sold our Assets!" and "Stripmined our Environment!" became after the 2011 Election. That is to say, words "full of sound and fury", but ultimately "signifying nothing" for the many thousands of otherwise swing-voters who continue to support National.

We aren't going to be getting rid of Key due to this flag-debate or its result.

That said, in strategic terms, there may potentially be some more serious repercussions for National. Though they won't necessarily say it openly, for many rural and conservative types, the attempted flag-change will likely form yet another nail in the coffin for their ongoing support for the Government. The lid's not firmly hammered down yet, but the trajectory which started with things like the PM's support for equality of marriage and continued with gambling-funded convention centers and a signing away of our sovereignty through the TPPA, may potentially lead to a noticeable acceleration in the steady stream of former-Nats who've been gradually making their way over to NZ First of late.

The lingering disquiet that will surely settle in about fiscal priorities now that the much-quoted $26 million which has evidently been wasted on a failed referendum, will also further chip into National's popularity and fiscal credibility. Coupled with recent funding cuts for the Police in tandem with a spate of larghessious renovations for Ministerial premises ... a decidedly disquieting pattern in National's funding decisions begins to reveal itself: symbols (whether MoBIE statues, "Cinderella-Stairs", or flags) are prioritized over actual instruments of change.

Anyway, back to the flag results. With that tight of a margin between the Old Flag and the Lockwood, I feel safe in saying that had there been a better option on offer for replacing the flag with, New Zealanders may very well have chosen to go with that instead.

As one of my associates put it, the flag referendum result "resembles the Republic vote in Australia [in 1999], where they had the bad alternative of Parliament voting for the President". The end result of that referendum was defeat for a Republic, even though people might have supported the establishment of one in principle, because of the manifest defectiveness of the proffered option for reform.

The same thing may very well have happened here.

Or, perhaps the closeness of the vote is instead reflective of the sheer level of time, energy, money, men, materials, and "celebrity endorsements" which National has been pouring in to this debate on its side.

Either way, three things are certain:

National is still in government; John Key is still the Prime Minister (albeit with perhaps a bit of his shiny rubbing off); and the Old Flag is still, for now at least, The Flag.

There are also serious and real issues facing New Zealand at present. They haven't gone away, even if we have all found ourselves oft-distracted by this annoying, messy sideshow.

Now that that's gone away, the Opposition have no choice but to try to make real change with real issues.

I wish us the very best of luck.

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