Sending The Prime Minister A Message: UMR Research asked people to respond to the following question: “The flag referendum has been a distraction and a waste of money. New Zealanders should send John Key a message by voting for the current flag.” Two-thirds of UMR’s respondents agreed with that statement.
STRANGE DAYS we’re living in, when New Zealand’s youngest voters are the most vociferous defenders of their county’s flag. It has become a commonplace of post-war political sociology that youth and radicalism go together like Ché Guevara’s image and T-Shirts.
Even before the youth rebellions of the 1950s and 60s, the close correlation between tender years and tender ideals had been apparent to no less a figure than Winston Churchill. “He who is not a socialist at twenty, hasn’t a heart”, the great man observed, before immediately alienating every twenty-year-old (and socialist!) by adding: “He who is still a socialist at forty, hasn’t a head.”
When it comes to the Flag Referendum, however, Churchill’s formula fails spectacularly. Instead of 18-29 year-olds favouring Kyle Lockwood’s Union Jack-less fern and stars design by an overwhelming margin, UMR Research reveals that nearly three-quarters of them (72 percent!) will be voting to keep the New Zealand flag exactly as it is.
Only the followers of another Winston are more determined to keep the Union Jack in its proper place. NZ First voters prefer the New Zealand Ensign to Kyle Lockwood’s silver fern by a whopping margin of 66 percentage points (83-17 percent). Are we to take from this that only about a fifth of Winston Peters’ supporters are serious about putting their country’s independent future ahead of its colonial past?
Or, is something else at work?
UMR Research clearly thinks so. Why else would they have asked people to respond to the following question: “The flag referendum has been a distraction and a waste of money. New Zealanders should send John Key a message by voting for the current flag.” Two-thirds of UMR’s respondents agreed with that statement. But, once again, it was the 18-29 year-olds who did so most vociferously. Fully 71 percent of them agreed that Mr Key should be sent a message.
Is this what the Flag Referendum has turned into? A referendum on John Key? People voting to humiliate the Prime Minister because they know they can do so without upsetting the entire political apple-cart? If so, then politics in New Zealand has reached a very interesting point. The electorate may be rapidly tiring of the National Party’s leader, but it has not yet grown weary of the National Party Government.
In other words, Mr Key may have got on a great many of the public’s nerves, but on its all-important hip-pocket nerve he has not got. The economy is still growing (albeit slowly) unemployment is falling, and inflation is as low as most people can remember. Wage rises may be low and infrequent – but, when they are given, they are real. And if you’re one of those voters lucky enough to have both feet on the property ladder, then the “wealth effect” of constantly rising house prices is unlikely to recommend any other party (except Act) for your serious electoral consideration.
The Flag Referendum thus permits people to lance the boil of their accumulated frustrations with the Prime Minister easily and inconsequentially. It’s a political diversion so very clever that one is sorely tempted to speculate that it’s exactly what Mr Key had planned all along.
And all those angry 18-29 year-olds? Are they going to be content with simply voting to retain the present flag? Will that really be sufficient to purge their twenty-something socialist hearts of resentful millennial rage? One suspects not.
And it is here that the political story takes a rather sad turning. Were our young voters living in the United States their hearts would be responding to the uncompromising summons of Senator Bernie Sanders: who, by remaining a socialist into his mid-seventies, has well-and-truly given the lie to Winston Churchill! Living in Britain, they would have Jeremy Corbyn (another superannuated socialist!) to whom they could give their hearts. But here, in New Zealand, there is a dearth of charismatic socialists on whose electoral altar they can lay down their youth and enthusiasm.
Guyon Espiner, writing in The Listener, likened Andrew Little to a rather dour Police inspector. Pitted against the grasshopper carelessness of John Key, Espiner argued, DCI Little might be just what the electorate is looking for. Or, at least, what forty year-old voters with a head might be looking for.
Those flagging a heart-felt vote, will just have to keep on looking.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 February 2016.