Responses to the flag referendum and the TPPA have parallels overseas such as supporting Trump in the US and Brexit in Britain. A sizeable proportion of the population think that the government is not listening to them and doesn’t care about them.

Kiwiblog presents an impressive scatter-diagram which shows that the more an electorate voted for National, the more it voted for a new flag. It seems unlikely that National voters are republican and radical (especially given the views of the leader they endorse). Rather it suggests that the ’conservative’ vote for the existing flag came from voters who are not very keen on the current government. Apparently for many, the vote was not about republicanism and the future; it was a vote against current developments. The referendum gave them an opportunity to express their grumbles.

Not only the flag referendum. I have been struck by how specious a lot of the grumbling has been against the TPPA. Regular readers will know I recognise real problems with the trade agreement and only reluctantly support it because the advantages from better market access outweigh the disadvantages of the investor state dispute proposals and the more restrictive intellectual property rights.  In doing so, I accept that others may rationally balance the issues differently.

But frankly, some of the earnestly proposed arguments against the TPPA are facile. For example: ‘X is dear to my heart. There is a faint possibility that the TPPA may just compromise X (even if the agreement explicitly excludes the possibility), and therefore my organisation is opposed to the TPPA.’ What is really going on, I think, is that the objector dislikes the TPPA and is trying to generate arguments against it. To an outsider they seem thin.

I am not even sure that the TPPA is the focus of their concerns. It often seems to be that they dislike what is going on more generally – including insufficient government lack of concern with X – so that the TPPA, like the flag referendum, is a lightning rod attracting the grumbling.

This grumbling is not confined to New Zealand. I detail two examples – Britain and the US – but there are many others. (For heaven’s sake, those great internationalists, the Dutch, are voting on whether the EU should be more supportive to Ukraine.)

In Britain the lightening rod is the referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU (Brexit). (Were I a Brit, I’d be on the ‘remain’ side because I have not the foggiest idea what a realistic alternative ‘out’ would be; however this is largely irrelevant for this column’s purposes.) It is undoubtedly true that some ‘outs’ have very clear views about the sovereignty issue (to which I shall return) but many more seem to be grumbling about the state of Britain, especially after six years of austerity and the Conservative government still imposing further austerity measures. Prime Minister, David Cameron, opposes Brexit, so a vote for it is a vote against him and all his policies. (I have wondered what our flag referendum outcome would have been if John Key had favoured the existing flag.)

On the other side of the Atlantic, there is the extraordinary support for Donald Trump. Even if he does not get the Republican presidential nomination, he has demonstrated there is a significant group of grumblers who don’t like the Republican establishment and Washington governance. Those who support Bernie Sanders are the Democrat equivalent, although his campaign is not nearly so bizarre. (I am reminded of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign for president with its ‘Children’s Crusade’ involving many young people.)

Trump’s supporters centre on white working-class American males who have not fared well economically and socially in recent decades. There is a parallel here with many Brexit supporters, and I should not be at all surprised if a lot of the anti-Key grumblers in the flag referendum have similar economic characteristics. They feel left out by such increases in affluence as there have been – by the growing inequality – and are using lightning rods to express their grievances.

But there is another interpretation, most prominent in Brexit and Trump’s rhetoric and implicit in some of the grumbling about the TPPA. It is about perceptions of national sovereignty. The balance of international relations is changing; America is not the global hegemon it once was (although even if its power is diminishing, it remains the most powerful nation on earth). There is still a residual nostalgia in Britain for when it was the hegemon and a belief it can still ‘punch above its weight’. (Every country believes that.)  Many New Zealanders are nervous about an evolving world in which it seems we are losing our independence (although less a nostalgic account of our history might suggest we have never had much room to manoeuvre, except as given by the grace of our very powerful allies).

The two phenomena are partially linked. In a world of increasing international trade, finance and interdependence it is likely that, unless some active measures are taken, there will be some groups who will not be great beneficiaries, especially measured relative to others, and who may be even worse off over time. I doubt they articulate this notion with any rigor but they intuit a connection between globalisation and their struggling situation. Their response is a desire to wind back the clock to the simpler world they think existed in the past.

Well we can’t (or not by more than the 60 minutes when summertime ends). Yet it would be equally wrong to ignore their cries of anger. Responding may require a vision that Cameron, Trump and Key do not have.


Addendum After the above was drafted, the government announced that the select committee considering consider hundreds of submissions on the TPPA has had the time frame set for deliberation drastically cut from four weeks to just five days. Even if many of the submissions are not significant, the reduction is democratically disgraceful. Additionally it confirms to the grumblers that they are right; that the government is not listening to them and doesn’t care about them.

Comments (10)

by Andrew Geddis on April 12, 2016
Andrew Geddis

For heaven’s sake, those great internationalists, the Dutch, are voting on whether the EU should be more supportive to Ukraine.

They've voted - and the answer was "no".

by Rich on April 12, 2016

Well, up until 1970-1980, wage earners in the west enjoyed a steady improvement in earning power, conditions and general standard of living. That improvement then reversed and the decline has been gaining momentum. 

Given that most people live primarily on wages, it's unsurprising that people are pissed off.

This has been countered by the section of the population who own property seeing their (very much nominal) wealth increase through property inflation and the tendency of others who don't have substantial net assets to identify with the wealthy, rather than taking a realistic view of their situation. It's those people who (even reluctantly) keep right wing governments in power - but it's questionable how their ideas would survive a substantial correction in property prices.

by Fentex on April 12, 2016

Inequality rears it's head.

Everyone is not in the same boat and the tide seems oddly selective in which ones rise or fall.

The Occupy movement was about this, I think, but it's incoherence (in the U.S, I believe from the obstruction of not wanting to assert as fact and raise as it's standard class politics/competition/warfare).

At some point capitalism is going to have to recover some of it's willingness to spread the wealth again or a straw is going to break the back of civil society and fascists will grasp for their chance again.

by Fentex on April 12, 2016

I meant to write; The occupy movements incoherence diffused and wasted it's energy.

by Lee Churchman on April 14, 2016
Lee Churchman

This I think gets to the heart of the problem:

Their response is a desire to wind back the clock to the simpler world they think existed in the past. Well we can’t (or not by more than the 60 minutes when summertime ends).

People are naturally suspicious when they are told that there is no alternative, because it's a standard sophistic tactic from those who can't or won't consider alternatives. Nevertheless, people are prepared to put up with it as long as elites appear competent or  are delivering some improvement in living standards for most. Well, living standards have gone backwards for many and since 2007 it's hard to believe that the people in charge actually know what they are doing. 

by Charlie on April 17, 2016

I see two issues here:

1. The never ending conflict between freedom and equality.

From a purely logical perspective they are contradictory. If we grant people freedom, outcomes will vary depending on the varying goals, effort, intelligence and yes, luck of individuals in society. This is the basis of inequality. We cannot have both so we have to find a balance somewhere. This has been the fundamental argument in western society since the Napoleonic era.

2. The post World War 2 entitlement culture

If you could talk to our forefathers who struggled through the 19th century and subsequently the Great Depression you would find a very different attitude from most people today. Herbert Hoover was elected in the USA in 1928 on the basis of the slogan of "a chicken in every pot". Well, today we all do have a chicken in every pot. And a cell phone. And a car. And $100 trainers. And free education & healthcare. Things our forefathers could only dream of, but people are still grumbling, not because they're getting poorer but because they are't getting richer, fast enough. Or because someone else had a better outcome than them, most likely because they paid attention at school, didn't do drugs, worked hard, saved and invested.

After WW2 the the 'developed' countries with infrastructure left standing had a golden opportunity to make and sell products to the rest of the world. This resulted in an unequalled boost in living standards in the West, which eventually spread to those industrialized countries that rebuilt (Germany, Japan, France etc). By the 1980's this effect began to spread to the developing nations in Asia. No longer did we in the west have an easy market for our goods; these '3rd world' places were now our direct competitors. The result has been a vast spreading out of wealth between nations. No longer does the unionized western factory worker or western industrialist business owner have hegemony over the means of production. UAW car workers in Detroit were earning US$40/ per hour in the good old days. Just how could they think that was sustainable?

The net result is that wealth in the west has plateaued and Asian peasants are dragging themselves out of abject poverty in their millions. If we were generous we would we pleased about this. After all, we have no God-given birthright to be automatically better off than someone in Thailand.  Instead westerners have developed a grand sense of entitlement that does not match the reality. Even worse, many have gotten themselves into debt to maintain that unsustainable standard of living. A trap they cannot escape.

In conclusion

We are witnessing historic inevitability and there's nothing much we can do about it other than work hard, be careful with our money and innovate.

We living in an era of the Great Reckoning where the results of poor decisions by both individuals and governments are coming home to roost, although not necessarily as chickens in the pot....


by onsos on April 18, 2016

Your interpretation of the flag referendum result is baseless.


The fact that support for a change of flag correlated with National support could easily suggest that National voters voted against the current flag because that was what Key wanted. That, right there, is easily as valid as the interpretation that votes for the current flag expressed disapproval of the current government.


This is a real problem: everybody's interpretation of what the referendum result means is baseless.

by Geoff Fischer on April 19, 2016
Geoff Fischer

Forty years ago the New Zealand left was obsessed with the populist National Party leader Robert Muldoon to the point where the price it was prepared to pay for his removal from power was the institution of the most extreme right-wing government New Zealand has ever seen.   Now the left is equally blinded by its current obsession  with another populist National Party leader, John Key.   

It is unlikely that the left will back another Douglas-Prebble style government in order to drive Key from power, but there are still unfortunate consequences from its compulsive opposition to anything to do with John Key.   The flag referendum is a case in point.   The left chose to portray the "change the flag" move as John Key's personal whim, irrelevant to the nation's future and simply "a waste of public money".

In fact the proposal had a serious purpose.  It was, as Key suggested, designed to reflect the new realities of New Zealand's place in the world, and to signify that New Zealand was no longer a mere colonial possession of Great Britain.  What matters more of course is what Key did not say and could not say about the logic behind the flag proposal.  First that it was designed to signify that New Zealand no longer had favorites among the global providers of capital, commodities and goods.   Second, that New Zealand was an independent nation not necessarily tied into any global political and military alliance. Third, that no ethnic group within New Zealand had a pre-eminent position in the state and society.  Fourth that the National Party, as its name suggests, is the natural party of New Zealand nationalism.  

None of these things are true, but Key hoped the flag proposal might create a perception that they were true.  His target audience was the Chinese government, the Chinese community in New Zealand, other non-British immigrant communities the Maori nationalist movement, and the Sutchian quasi-nationalist movement on the political centre-left.

He failed on all counts.   The Chinese know very well that a flag is "only a symbol", and that the National government remained committed to its political and military alliance with the Anglo-Saxon imperial powers, the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada.  Never-the-less, the Chinese would have welcomed a new flag as a token of New Zealand's willingness to change.  In the event, they did not even get that, because change was opposed by Maori (for complex reasons which have been discussed in, the liberal left  (because it was a John Key initiative), the Indian community (because India is aligned with Britain in a global stand-off against China), and the ethnic British community (because they stubbornly oppose any move away from loyalty to the "home" country and hence continued British dominance in this country).

Most who took part in the referendum cast their votes for the wrong reasons.   That is, they voted on the basis of ethnic and party political affiliations, with little if any regard to the long-term interests of New Zealand as a coherent national entity.  But even a successful outcome for Key would not have resolved the issues which a flag change was intended to ameliorate.  For the first time in history New Zealand is tied into political and military alliances which are inconsistent with the geo-political interests of its major trading partner..  For the second time in history it has to figure out how to cater to the needs of a large, vigorous, ambitious,  affluent and growing ethnic group with links to a major foreign power.   The flag referendum showed that John Key really doesn't have any answers.   But the left can't even see the nature of the problem.

by Charlie on April 19, 2016

Despite being a National supporter in the last election I voted against the new flag.

1. Because I thought the design was a mess

2. Because I resented my money being spent on it

3. Because it put the cart before the horse. If we ever become a republic (God forbid!) only then do we have reason for a new flag. It seems nobody saw the irony of the flag referendum happening at the same time as we were swearing in a new Governor General.


by Geoff Fischer on April 23, 2016
Geoff Fischer

So long as a British head of state continues to reign over the realm of New Zealand  it would be premature to change the New Zealand flag. 

That is not the way that some republicans, for example Lewis Holden the leader of the Change the Flag movement, see it.  Holden reckons that making merely symbolic changes now may create a mood for more substantive changes later.  On the other hand progressive liberals like John Key see symbolic change as an alternative to substantive change such as the formation of an independent republic of Aotearoa

Both Key and Holden are deluded.  No useful purpose would be served by a change of flag at this point. Any genuine nationalists who place think that flags are important will fall in behind the tino rangatiratanga flag.   That flag is authentic.  It did not come out of an advertising agency.  It came from the heart and soul of the people.  But it can only take the place of the New Zealand ensign as a national flag once the colonial order  - Monarch, Governor-General, GCSB, SIS, foreign  military and political alliances, flag and all - has been sent packing.

I agree with Charlie's first and third points.  But because none of my own money was spent on the project, I can't resent it for that reason.  In fact I don't resent the flag referendum at all.   It was just a case of the New Zealand government thinking that a change of flag, a symbolic change, could be an acceptable alternative to more material political changes, and that the New Zealand public could somehow be conned into accepting that proposition.    On both counts they are wrong, but we have all been able to learn something from the experience.

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