New Zealand recently voted to retain its current flag. Therese Arseneau and Nigel S. Roberts, who examined last year’s first flag plebiscite, now assess aspects of the results of the country’s binding run-off referendum that was held in March.
Three months ago we examined the lead-up to, and the results of, the first of two referendums about New Zealand’s flag. In a postal ballot using optional preferential voting, New Zealanders were asked to choose (from among five options) their preferred alternative flag design. Their choice – the Kyle Lockwood black-white-and-blue silver fern flag – was pitted against the current New Zealand flag in a second binding referendum that was held from 3-24 March and was a postal ballot.
We ended our article with a prediction of sorts: as political scientists we would be ‘surprised’ if there were to be a vote for change in the second referendum. This prediction, based on reading public opinion polls rather than tea-leaves, was accurate. The status quo prevailed. Just under 57 per cent voted to keep the current flag, and 43 per cent unsuccessfully opted for change.
Just over 2.1 million people (in a country with a total population of only four-and-a-half million) voted in the referendum – a turnout of almost 68 per cent of eligible electors, which was significantly higher than the 49 per cent turnout in the initial indicative referendum. What is more, the ‘informal’ votes in the second referendum constituted a mere 0.2 per cent, in sharp contrast with the 9.7 per cent informal vote in the first referendum, which – as we suggested in our first article – was predominantly a protest vote by people objecting either to the idea of changing the flag or to the process being used.
The extent of the vote for the status quo is best illustrated by the fact that a mere six of New Zealand’s 71 electorates (i.e., constituencies) voted to change the flag – and exceptionally narrowly at that. The electorate with the highest vote for change (Tamaki, in a well-to-do section of Auckland’s suburbia) recorded only 51.9 per cent in favour of the new flag. At the other end of the scale, New Zealand’s seven Māori electorates saw 75.2 per cent vote to keep the current flag (albeit on a voter turnout of 48.6 per cent).
It may seem odd to some that New Zealand’s tangata whenua – the people of the land – voted by such a large margin to retain a flag featuring the United Kingdom’s Union Jack, instead of supporting the alternative design displaying some of the country’s most recognisable indigenous flora. However, this is in keeping with what Professor Jane Kelsey has referred to as ‘a consistent underlying position’ of caution on the part of Māori with respect to republicanism, in part because the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi is regarded by Māori as ‘an agreement between Māori and the English Queen sealed with her personal mana (prestige and authority) and that of the rangatira (chiefs).’
Predominantly along party lines
It is also crucial to understand that the Māori electorates are consistently among the least National and the most Labour seats in the country. In the 2014 general election, for instance, the party vote for the National Party in the seven Māori constituencies was 7.9 percent, while the Labour’s party vote was 41.2 per cent. Compare these figures with data for the same election from the 64 general (i.e., non- Māori) electorates: the party vote for National was 49.6 per cent, and the party vote for Labour was 24.0 per cent. (In New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional – MMP – electoral system, electors have two votes: a party vote and an electorate vote, and it is the party vote that’s primarily responsible for determining the parties’ overall shares of the seats in parliament.) The overwhelming rejection of the proposal for a new flag by electors in the seven Māori seats mirrors the same seats’ rejection of the party that proposed and championed the flag referendums – namely, the National Party.
Overall, the vote in the second referendum was predominantly along party lines, so much so that there was a +0.9549 rank-order correlation between the proportions in electorates giving National their party vote in 2014 and the proportions in electorates voting for a change of flag in 2016. Figure 1 shows the connection between support for National and support for changing the flag. As the National Party’s share of the party vote in electorates rises, so too do the proportions of people voting for a change of flag. However, even in the eleven electorates where National’s party vote in the 2014 election was in excess of 60 per cent, support for the proposed new flag was significantly less than that, so much so that in these blue-ribbon seats fewer than 50 per cent of electors (the exact figure was 49.2 per cent) voted to change the flag.
On the opposite side of the coin (and the House!), polling analyses also found a connection between Labour and Green party voters and their position on the flag – in this case, opposition to changing it – seemingly against the grain, because both parties have in the past been supportive of the idea of a new flag. This illustrates another aspect of the political manoeuvring connected with both referendums. For many voters, the attraction of producing a very rare personal defeat for John Key – the Prime Minister and principal proponent of change – coloured their views about the flag. In effect, the second flag referendum became a referendum about John Key.
An uphill battle
The problem for the Prime Minister, though, was that he was fighting an uphill battle. As Tracy Watkins, the political editor and parliamentary bureau chief for the Fairfax media in New Zealand, has pointed out, Mr Key ‘knew there was no groundswell for change. But he banked on his personal popularity giving the debate momentum, and pushing a new flag over the line.’ In this instance, however, his personal popularity was not enough: even his own electorate, Helensville, didn’t cross the line. Indeed, the result in the Prime Minister’s constituency almost exactly reflected the nationwide result: 56.5 per cent of voters in Helensville favoured retaining the current New Zealand flag, while 43.3 per cent supported the proposed new flag.
John Key made two crucial miscalculations. First, he failed to get cross-party support for his proposal. He assumed that the parties of the centre-left, Labour and the Greens, would – as a result of their previously declared party positions – have no choice other than to support a referendum to change the flag. This did not happen. Instead, the opposition focused its criticism on the process, the alternative flag designs and the cost of the referendums, while also disparaging the whole exercise as the pet-project of a Prime Minister in search of a legacy. Second, Mr Key came across as an unlikely champion of this change. The public was, understandably, confused by the Prime Minister’s inconsistent messages about the place of the monarchy in modern-day New Zealand. For example, support for removing the Union Jack from the country’s flag sat oddly alongside one of his earliest acts as Prime Minister, which had been to reinstate the titles of Dame and Sir in the New Zealand royal honours system.
Martin Kettle recently noted in The Guardian that ‘other things being equal, the change option in any referendum has mountains to climb that the status quo option doesn’t’. In particular, studies of past referendums (by Alan Renwick, for example) have found that opinion tends to move towards the status quo – not change – during the course of campaigns. In this light, the results of the second flag referendum in New Zealand offer John Key some solace. Against international trends, the major shift was towards change rather than the status quo. Throughout 2015, opinion polls in New Zealand found only about a quarter of the population wanted to change the flag. Forty-three per cent support for a new flag was not the top of the mountain, but it was close enough to suggest that the debate may not be over.
John Key’s ‘legacy’ may not be a new flag, but he may have opened Pandora’s box on a more fundamental and far-reaching constitutional conversation.
All of the photos used in this post were taken by Nigel S. Roberts.
About the authors
Dr Therese Arseneau is a Senior Fellow in Political Science at the University of Canterbury.
Nigel S. Roberts is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Victoria University of Wellington.