Saturday, 20 February 2016


Should New Zealand change its flag or its Prime Minister?

New Zealand is about to vote on a change of the national flag. Currently, the flag features the flag of the United Kingdom and the stars of the Southern Cross. The proposed new flag, chosen in a referendum in November 2015, features the silver fern national emblem with the Southern Cross.
The New Zealand flag 1902-2016

Is voting to keep the old flag a logical approach for people who dislike New Zealand Prime Minister John Key? No. Definitely not. If they like the new flag, they should vote for it. If they genuinely prefer the old flag, they should vote for it, but don't expect me to be included with that backward-looking lot.

The flag vote is a conscience vote for MP's of all parties, except for the minor party NZ First. They are expected to follow the party line, but rumor persists that it is the Prime Minister's pet project and that a vote against the flag will bring the PM down.
The new flag

Separating the flag debate from the Prime Ministerial leadership is an impossibility for some people. They say that it's time for Key to be toppled and voting against the flag change will weaken his position. I doubt that. Key is a strong and charismatic leader who still commands around 47% as preferred PM, while his nearest rivals from all parties struggle to make double figures. That's an impressive lead for a PM approaching the mid-point of his third term. To see just how well, or badly, Key is doing, let's compare him with earlier Prime Ministers.
Richard Seddon

Richard Seddon (1893-1906) was New Zealand's longest serving PM. But in Seddon's day there was no radio or television and the newspapers were almost always pro-government. Jobs for the boys was a useful way for a PM to retain the support of cabinet, caucus and the party membership. Seddon took over after Balance died, was re-elected four times and died part way through his fifth term. He was PM for 13 years.

William Massey (1912-1925) reigned in a political world that was little changed from Seddon's day. He became PM after a vote of no confidence, was re-elected three times and died during what would have been his fifth term. He served for 12 years and 10 months.
William Massey

Keith Holyoake (1957-1957) (1960-1972) Apart from the few months in 1957, Holyoake was elected four times and retired in the last months of his fourth straight term. Holyoake was the first PM to serve under the scrutiny of an expanding and deregulated news media. From that point on, being PM was no longer the easy ride of earlier years. He was PM continuously for 11 years. Of all New Zealand's leaders, Holyoake must be credited with having the most staying power. No other leader served as PM for more than nine years without dying in office. After stepping down as PM he went on the serve four years as Governor-General.

Keith Holyoake
Peter Fraser (1940-1949) Like Massey before him, Fraser had an election delayed due to wartime, which effectively extended his term and popularity. Fraser served two full terms and one part-term for a total of nine years.
Peter Fraser

Helen Clark (1999-2008) Helen Clark was the first New Zealand woman to lead a party to victory. She served three full terms and nine years as PM, before being defeated by John Key.

Rob Muldoon (1975-1984) was elected three times but only served eight and a half years. A rash decision to hold a snap election cut his last term short and robbed several MP's of their expected superannuation entitlements.

Jim Bolger (1990-1997) For seven years, Jim Bolger struggled to hold his government and leadership together and was finally toppled by Jenny Shipley during his third term as PM.
Helen Clark

John Key (2008-) Of New Zealand's 38 premiers and prime ministers, Key is now the eighth longest serving PM. At the end of the current term he will be fourth equal with Fraser and Clark. If he secures a fourth term, and completes it, he will stand alongside Seddon and Massey. But how likely is it that Key will complete a fourth term?
John Key

While the Labour Party continues dumping leaders every year or two, Key has an excellent chance. He may be tiring, but he is also gaining experience, and so far the public have supported him head and shoulders above the leaders of all other parties. Since the 1960's, prime ministers have followed a pretty set pattern on their road to defeat or retirement. Traditionally, the first year or two sees a fresh-faced PM bursting with energy and ideas, but most run out of steam within three or four years and their image and following fades. It is an extremely demanding job. By the second term most PM's start to look older, worried, cautious and more easily rattled by the opposition and tricky journalists. Key is just starting to show the very first signs of that after seven years, in spite of inheriting a major recession and having to deal with the world's most expensive natural disaster. But the apparent weakening is often not so much a sign of a PM failing, but of an opposition becoming more desperate and more devious. Scandals emerge were there are no scandals. Enquiries are demanded where there is nothing to enquire into.

There can be no doubt that Labour is desperate. Labour has had five leaders while National has had just one. There is every chance that Key and National will pull off another victory in 2017, and Labour will have yet another leadership coup or two.

But, meanwhile, the changing of the flag is really a non-party political issue and people should put parties and personalities aside and vote for the flag that will best represent New Zealand into the future.