Five reasons the flag-change campaign failed

Some 56.6% (1,200,003) voted for the current flag, 43.2% (915,009) voted for the Kyle Lockwood design. With special feature audio: Winston Peters on a "crushing defeat".
Old flag wins

New Zealanders have voted to keep their current flag.

The preliminary results:

  • 56.6% (1,200,003) voted for the current flag
  • 43.2% (915,009) voted for the Kyle Lockwood design
  • The number of invalid votes cast was 4554

See results by electorate here; almost every single electorate, Labour or National, had a majority vote for the current flag, including prime minister John Key's Helensville. 

A total of 2,119,953 total votes were received (a 67% turnout), compared to 1,546,734 in the first referendum that saw Kyle Lockwood's flag prevail over four other alternatives. 

As the preliminary result came through, current flag advocate Winston Peters told NBR Radio it was a “crushing defeat.”

“The process was politically tarnished by the involvement of the prime minister and his government. And even then they couldn’t convince their own supporters," he said.

Mr Peters did not think it was the only chance in a generation to change the flag, but he wanted the next referendum to be held at the same time as a general election to hold down costs. (Click the NBR Radio box above to hear more from the NZ First leader).

At a measured press conference, Mr Key said he respected the result and that his government would not revisit the flag debate.

Asked if he thought the $26 million was worth it, he said the referendum had sparked an "enormous" and healthy debate over nationhood. 

He would not change anything about the process, he said.

Five reasons it went wrong
The campaign for change began well, with a majority against change but there an was openness to the debate. Mr Key pushed his points energetically. For a while, he had a party trick at events of asking who wanted to change the flag. He asked for a show of hands (which went against him), gave his spiel, then had another hand-vote that invariably went his way.

But along the way, things got bad-tempered and an alliance of conservatives and want-change-but-hate-Lockwood voters ensured the result seen tonight.

Here's what I think went wrong (in order of importance, in my unscientific opinion).

1. Mixed messages from the prime minister: Mr Key made an articulate case for flag change. It was time to cut the apron string, and adopt a flag that reflected modern New Zealand but also respected our heritage with the silver fern that has emerged as our national symbol by default, replacing our Australian lookalike flag on everything from war graves to trade missions to (yes) sports teams. But he also muddied the waters by making ambiguous comments about whether New Zealand should become a republic and supporting royal honours. He politicised the vote and, worse, did so in a fashion that confused middle New Zealand.

2. The emphasis on crowdsourced designs: I don't agree with those who say the Flag Consideration Panel should have only dealt with professional designers, or been stacked with them. The design community largely fell in behind Red Peak, which was geometrically pleasing but just didn't say "New Zealand" to most people and got cut in the first referendum. But, by the same token (and with brilliant hindsight), 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. The Kyle Lockwood design: Personally, I thought it looked a bit amateur and dated; more like a 1990 Commonwealth Games logo than a flag for the 21st century. I was disappointed that such a sweeping designed competition didn't give us a better alternative or at least more choice than three ferns. But it wasn't appalling. It was blah but serviceable. The prime minister could have sold it with a more focused campaign. [UPDATE: An OIA has revealed that thousands of designs were rejected. Many broke the rules about displaying a person's image or references to current events.]

4. Politicking: Opposition parties generally supported flag change but, over time, became more obsessed by the chance to hand Mr Key a defeat. Labour tried to make hay but, as ever, Winston Peters does this type of cynical campaigning better. The Cheshire Cat seems the only winner from the whole sorry referendum.

5. Marketing: It was what Donald Trump might call a low energy referendum. Anyone could order the final two flags, free, to fly from their letterbox or car. How many did you see? I'm not sure what type of campaign could have roused the nation into a bit of passion, given factors 1 to 4. But whatever it was we didn't see it.

And as for me?

I didn't vote.

Subscribe to NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson podcast for analysis and feature-length interviews each Sunday morning

50 comments
Login in or Register to view & post comments