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Labour’s flag strategy

Written By: - Date published: 2:48 pm, December 15th, 2009 - 44 comments
Categories: labour, Media - Tags: , , ,

Colin Espiner:

After making inroads in the latest TV3 poll, Goff has clearly taken fright after the reaction to his nationhood speech. How else to explain his perplexing decision not to comment on the announcement by Prime Minister John Key that the Maori tino rangatiratanga flag will fly on Waitangi Day?

This decision by Key will be controversial, and it was a gift for Goff to get stuck into. Instead he’s run and hid, saying only there are more important things to worry about. That left the door wide open for leadership aspirant Shane Jones to go on radio this morning and slate the flag as the “flag of division, of protest…it’s Hone’s flag”.

Espiner, and others in the media, seem to think Jones is barging through a gap left by Goff to further leadership aspirations. Nup. This isn’t Goff being weak. Nor Jones leap-frogging him. Doesn’t show internal ructions. It shows internal cohesion and strategy. Let me explain.

Legitimate criticisms coming from Goff are going to be mired in race issues and accusations of dogwhistling. Particularly after his Nationhood speech, which had dogwhistles. Going to risk further pissing off Maori Labourites. Labour, including Goff, are genuinely unhappy to have caused that justified reaction.

Jones doesn’t have that problem. Simple truth – he’s Maori. He’s also got a defter hand on race relations.

Labour’s strategy is simple. Jones leads criticism of poor policies that concern Maori like the flag. Goff restricts his comments to stuff that isn’t racially sensitive and dismisses the flag as a sign of a government that’s doing nothing on the big issues.

Criticism made. No perception of dogwhistling. No fear of backlash. Labour gets the win without the toll. Basic politics.

44 comments on “Labour’s flag strategy ”

  1. IrishBill 1

    Is this like national’s strategy where the frontbench do the dirty work while Key sits back with clean hands and says he’s relaxed unless it goes really wrong in which case he steps in as the great consensus-maker?

    • snoozer 1.1

      hehe, could be.

      I don’t see anyone claiming Key’s leadership is under threat when that happens.

      • Tim Ellis 1.1.1

        Maybe the reason why nobody (seriously) claims that Mr Key’s leadership is under threat is because he is the preferred prime minister by a historically record margin. It doesn’t seem to stop some people here at the Standard speculating on him though.

    • Dean 1.2

      [Give it up Dean. And take a three month ban while you’re at it.]

  2. al 2

    Phil could have, and should have, opposed the flag. Backing down now is a weak look I’m afraid and this will do Labour no favours. In the end he buckled to the media machinations of the right (and sadly from the left as well ). He was scared off with all the talk of dog whistling and dirty politics. He had one chance and absolutely blew it. The right will be thrilled.

  3. al 3

    Phil backed down from the start he made giving voice to the large number of New Zealanders who have no time for racism or for the maori separatist movement. Allowing the flying of a flag, that is a symbol of maori separatism, to fly from government buildings is really offensive to many.Phil could have consolidated his leadership. Instead he gave in. It will show in the next round of polls- I predict Labour will be back where it was and will stay there indefinitely.

    • Lew 3.1

      Backing down from the disastrous strategy of alienating one of the few voter bases who (against much of their better judgement) remain generally loyal to Labour, in exchange for a possible bounce among National’s core demographic, then? Sounds like he’s taken some good advice.


  4. Tigger 4

    I just assumed that Goff was letting one of the most senior Maori MPs take point given the issue here. And gotta say, Jones has scored some great points.

  5. Neil 5

    “Legitimate criticisms”?

    If Labour and/or Jones had legitimate criticisms they could have taken those concerns to the consultative hui run by TPK.

    To now claim that this has been suddenly foisted on them by Hone is exremely dishonest and can only see it as part of Labour’s broader strategy on race issues.

    • gobsmacked 5.1

      Neil, which of these positions do you favour?

      1) National opposing Maori seats, in Auckland, and elsewhere, including Parliament (their policy has not changed)
      2) Labour supporting Maori seats, in Auckland, and elsewhere, including Parliament (their policy has not changed)

      And if your answer is 2), a follow-up:

      Do you believe a flag on a couple of buildings one day a year is an issue that is about one-thousandth as important as Maori seats, giving access to real power, or are you so blinded by hatred of the Labour Party that you cannot see this charade for what it is?

      • Neil 5.1.1

        I gave my party and electoral vote to Helen Clark’s Labour govt three elections in a row and even after get concerned about where they were heading gave Labour my party vote in the last election.

        Read that as “hatred” if you want, that’s the typical reaction from Labour people these days to any form of criticism.

        I support Maori representaion on councils and wonder why labour never managed to do that in the 9 years they were in power but all of a sudden it’s such an issue for them.

        And really, I doubt they would really make such a change given where Goff is leading them.

        And yes write off the flag issue as hollow symbolism. Just like the Seabed and Foreshore Acttthlough, others might have a different view.

        • gobsmacked

          But Neil, it is hatred. It’s an obsession (just read your own posts, they are only on one theme, repeated ad nauseam). Like a guy going on (and on) about his ex-wife. People often get more angry about those they did vote for, than the ones they objectively think are worse.

          The F & S Act? What has John Key done? What law has changed? None. Do you not see the game?

          It is amazing to see smart people (which you presumably are) getting duped like this. If Labour are not good, National can only be worse. Logically. Rationally (but not, alas, emotionally).

          • Neil

            I’m more inclined to call it “feeling betrayed”. I’ve spent considerable energy defending Labour on race relations issues over the past few years to members of my family.

            So, yeah, there’s an element of emotional involvement.

          • Lew


            If Labour are not good, National can only be worse.

            Do you hear yourself? Four legs good, two legs bad.

            Reasoning like this gave Labour a mandate to betray tangata whenua with the Foreshore and Seabed Act: whatever we do, National will do worse. It was true in the time of Brash, but indications are it’s not so true now. The government has all but stated that the Foreshore and Seabed Act will be repealed and replaced with a scheme drafted and implement by the consent of those who were disenfranchised by the FSA. If they don’t follow through, then they will be rightly pilloried — but all indications are that they intend to follow through.

            What we’ve learned over the past year is that past behaviour is not an ironclad indicator of future behaviour. Faced with the alternative of a Labour party which began to see sense but has since decided that the task of being in opposition is to oppose the government, regardless of the quality of its agenda, and has shown indications it might recant on its undertaking to work constructively on the repeal and replacement, the National party’s record on race relations suddenly doesn’t look so bad. That’s Labour’s shame more than it is National’s triumph.

            Unlike Neil (although I understand his position) I’m not emotionally attached to Labour — I’m rationally attached to them regaining office. I’m confident that, in the long run, you’re right. But that doesn’t mean folk should go easy on them, as you suggest, giving them a free ride because they’re ‘the good guys’ in a big cloth caps v bowler hats battle. They shouldn’t be punished for their betrayals and rewarded for their loyalty, because such breeds in loyalty and breeds out betrayal. If they can’t win those disenchanted voters back fair and square, they don’t deserve ’em.


      • Lew 5.1.2

        GS, two can play at the single-policy winner-takes-all game.

        Which of these positions do you favour?

        1) Labour opposing the right of tangata whenua to possession of their lands & resources as guaranteed under the Treaty and upheld in the courts of the land (their policy has not changed).

        2) National supporting the right of tangata whenua to possession of their lands & resources as guaranteed under the Treaty and upheld in the courts of the land (their policy has changed).

        If 1, a follow-up:

        Do you believe that a government reneging on an ages-old agreement and overriding the rule of law in order to rob Pita and pay Paul is any way to run a country? Are you so blinded by your starry-eyed love of Labour that you can’t see that betrayal for what it is?

        The reality, of course, is that the FSA, mana whenua seats, and so on are single (important) issues in a wider democratic policy mix. So is the flag, and although you might decry it as an irrelevancy, symbolism matters; identity matters. On the topic of race relations, Labour has a great track record over the medium and long term, and a very poor track record indeed over the short term; worse than almost any other government in living memory. That counts — it’s important, and it’s important that their intransigence not go unrewarded, because if it did, they’d have no damned reason not to do it again.

        If Goff maintains and strengthens his race-baiting then the Labour party* deserves nothing more than a long spell in the political wilderness, and that will be a crying shame for this country.


        * Happily, indications are that he might not: he hasn’t followed up on his Nationhood speech; Words Have Been Had in the caucus room; and he has delegated the point role on this issue to Shane Jones, who has a stronger mandate to speak on the topic since he’s from the Tai Tokerau and has grown up with this tribal politicking. But there’s still the worrying matter of a possible lack of bipartisan agreement on the FSA repeal. The whole world’s watching.

        • gobsmacked

          Lew, you’re right that parties should be judged by what they do in power.

          So your Option 2) is not true. National have not upheld any such right, at all. Yet.

          You may choose to be generous and give them a free pass based on what you hope they will do, at some indeterminate point in the future. I’m afraid I don’t.

          It has never been easier for a Prime Minister – of either party – than in the past year. Soft media, weak opposition, clear majority in Parliament, very high poll ratings. If ever a PM and government was going to lead from the front and take “middle NZ” (or whatever term you prefer) forward on race/Treaty issues, then it was in 2009.

          Key has done nothing. And the word is done. Not promised to “have a look at”, blah blah.

          Even without passing a law, he could have made a defining speech, laid out a vision, led the debate, something. But he hasn’t.

          If he ever does, I’ll commend him. Everything I’ve seen in his political persona thus far, tells me he never will. I see no depth, no vision, no inner core.

          Hope he proves me wrong.

          • Neil

            “Key has done nothing.”

            I think that having a Maori flag flying next Waitangi Day isn’t nothing.

            But on the central issue of the Seabed and Foreshore Act we have Goff now saying (after a few u-turns) he’s fine with it. I don’t know what Key will do. But I do know that Key is fine with a Maori flag and has said he’ll revist the FSA.

            Labour has had many fine politicians who have done right by Maori. But National have had a few as well. Goff has chosen to emulate Brash rather than Bolger.

            • gobsmacked

              Bolger never had anything like Key’s popularity. He was disliked by most of the country. He had three parties attacking him, and Richardson’s followers inside his own. But still, he showed leadership (with Doug Graham). In far, far more difficult times.

              Key could have done far more. If you want to believe he’ll do more in the future, fine (a pointless debate until he does, obviously). I just ask: If not now, when? At 70% in the polls?

              We’ll see.

              • Neil

                I see your point.

                As far as I can see National are keeping pretty much to the same Treaty settlement process that was happening under Labour.

                perhaps they are squandering their poll position by not shifting Pakeha opinion a bit more towards reconcilliation.

                but Labour aren’t actually putting that argument across.

          • Lew

            GS, but you’re wrong. The government appointed an indigenist review panel with genuine credibility to review the FSA, who proceeded to deliver a damning indictment of it and propose a suite of solutions which, a few years ago, would have been unthinkably radical. That’s something: it’s progress. It’s more than tangata whenua got in terms of cultural recognition in nine long years of the Fifth Labour Government.

            You’re judging things on the basis only of concrete outcomes. Like the guy who doesn’t think it counts as sex until he gets his end away.

            It ignores the reality of those whose preferred policy positions aren’t able to be delivered by fiat in simple terms. These things take time. Time is one thing those of us on this side of the indigenism fence have got plenty of.


            • gobsmacked

              Lew, I disagree, but no point us going on until there’s action.

              You believe (I guess) that there will be major changes to the F & S Act. I believe it will be Cullen’s law, with glossier packaging, and superb spin.

              Sorry, but it always comes down to two things: having to, or wanting to. The Prime Minister doesn’t have to (in terms of Parliament’s numbers, and political consequences), and so he has to want to. That has to come from within. Can’t see it.

              • Lew

                He doesn’t have to now, but he’s a pragmatist, and sees that governing without being on side with the natives is going to get harder and harder, so he’d be a fool to squander this relationship. I agree with you that he’ll only do the minimum — but while Labour’s off in the delusional redneck wastelands, that’ll be enough. If Labour wants to do right by Māori, it needs to come back to the table and start participating in the bidding war.


            • Zetetic

              “You’re judging things on the basis only of concrete outcomes.”

              Outcomes are all that matters. Everything else is talk and words on paper. Doesn’t change the real world in the slightest.

              “Like the guy who doesn’t think it counts as sex until he gets his end away.”

              Mate. Your analogy’s off. At this point all you’ve got is the girl saying ‘yeah, I asked some people about you and they said you’re hot’. Haven’t even got a promise to act. Let alone the action that you want.

              • Lew


                Outcomes don’t get to being outcomes without a series of progressive steps along the way.

                And there is a promise as far as the FSA goes — and more than a promise, the establishment of a framework to dismantle it and replace it with something that works. That’s an outcome, in itself.


              • Zetetic

                “That’s an outcome, in itself”

                No it’s not.

                There is no “establishment of a framework to dismantle it and replace it with something that works”. There is not even a promise to do that.

                Key has said the FSA might be repealed. He has made no indication as to what the replacement will be or whether it will differ substantial in outcomes. He has made no indication as to timeframe.

                In fact he has previously said Maori are getting already is too much and has promised nothing more even if there the FSA is repealed. And most importantly of all no guarantee that if he does eventually do something it’ll be what Maori want and not worse than nothing

                Following your analogy – you seem to think that Key has promised Maori a date with a root later on. In fact all he’s said is he’ll think about going out with them at some time. No guarantees of sex. He might just end up stealing their wallet instead for all you know.

              • Lew

                Key has said the FSA might be repealed. He has made no indication as to what the replacement will be or whether it will differ substantial in outcomes. He has made no indication as to timeframe.

                What the government’s done is paint itself into a corner such that if nothing is done by 2011 election time, tangata whenua will be able to punish it. If Labour had not redoubled its attempts to alienate Māori, they could stand to gain some support (back), forcing the government to follow through or risk the election.


        • Neil


          Jones is enmeshed in internecine warfare and Mallard spins the old diviseness line –


          “Their mates died’. Can Labour get any more repulsive.

          • gobsmacked

            But isn’t that exactly the point, Neil?

            Think what this could be. A debate about the nation’s flag, and its constitutional follow-on. Role of Treaty, head of state, republic, etc.

            Instead we get Prince William over for a barbie, and John Key, the classic conservative, is thrilled. Meet the future King!

            No, the flag must only ever be a sop. Never a symbol. Because that might mean a real debate about meaning and substance. Key has no interest in that at all.

            That’s why it was only worth “five minutes”.

            Please see through him. It’s painful to see the self-delusion going on here, just because he is … Not labour.

            • Neil

              all good points. I think Labour could do better by stickng to core beliefs.but thanks for the exchange. I’m going to raise a toast to the Maori flag come new year just in recognition of our history.

              It’s all a bit difficult but as long as we’re not shooting each other then what the fuck.

        • sk

          This is all very complicated, that in part reflects the respective upbringing of Helen Clark and John Key. Labour’s recent history reflects that Helen Clark was from a Waikato farming family, and grew up on confiscated land. Very few Waikato Pakeha mixed with Tainui in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and she had zero exposure. JK is the son of a European Jewish matriarch who escaped the Shoah, who would have been brought up with a natural inclusiveness to minorities.

          So JK is to happy to provide symbols. But on issues of substance, he is not there for Maori. This a bait and switch.

          Goff is being judged in a way HC never was, but her natural instincts were worse – as the F&S illustrates. Goff’s speech title was wrong, and the audience wrong, but the UMNO-isation of Maori politics is fair game.

          That is what commentators like Lew and Eddie are missing, with all due respect. To compare Goff with Brash is absurd. But right now, recent history prevents a more objective reading.

          • Lew


            So JK is to happy to provide symbols. But on issues of substance, he is not there for Maori. This a bait and switch.

            You lot keep saying there’s no substance to his commitments to iwi. There hasn’t been time for such, yet. Race politics takes time; it runs generation to generation, not budget to budget.

            Goff is being judged in a way HC never was

            I agree with this. Goff is being judged for Clark’s failings in 2004. That’s not entirely fair — but not entirely unfair also, since he was a senior member of that policy team.

            To compare Goff with Brash is absurd.

            To compare him with Brash is absurd, I’ll grant you that. To compare his political strategy with that undertaken by Brash is not. Although things seem to have been changing.


  6. Ministers and Shadow Ministers should comment on matters within their purview and any old MP can comment on whatever he or she likes, but on matters that concern the Nation the only views that matter are those of the Prime Minister and the would-be Prime Minister.

    Goff should have commented on this. If he doesn’t he will appear indecisive or weak, or even worse will be seen to be the sort who applies to a heart-and-mind matter the kind of “what do I want people to think I think” political scheming and connivance several commentators on this blog have applauded him for.

  7. BLiP 7

    Heh! You gotta chuckle when even that wonderful alternative thinker Tim Ellis can provide a better effort at wedge comments than Espiner.

  8. Lanthanide 8

    Perhaps Shane Jones should take the leadership of Labour, then our next election can parallel the US’ last election – rolling a no-brains rich white guy to be replaced with a leftwing brown-skinned guy.

  9. I think he probably should have commented but I myself am really not sure how I stand on this issue. I don’t think Maori are this one united group like a nation that should have it’s own flag. It also does promote separatism. However many of them don’t feel represented by the New Zealand flag. Maybe we just need a new flag.

    • Neil 9.1

      In one sense Maori aren’t one united group – there’s still very strong iwi idenitification which is the basic social identification pre-dating European arrival.

      But on the otherhand “Maori” are a Treaty partner and this flag is for The Treaty of Waitangi day. So if we are to celebrate the Treaty I think that two flags are appropriate.

      There is not uninanimity within Maori as to what flag that should be but there was a consultation precess where a very large % favoured one option. I can understand would be upsetting to those who did not get their prefered flag. But how else do we decide such things?

      I do wonder why people such as Jones choose now to make all sorts of allegations about the tino rangitiratanga flag when it was never any secret what the four options were. And of those four options there was one that is indeed very much associated with a particular Maori grouping – the United Tribes flag. Which I assume was included, when others such as Tuhoe’s was not, out of respect for the role that flag has played.

      There was a well advertised process for choosing this flag. There were no complaints at the time about that process or about the range of choice. If we are to now turn around and reject this on the say so of people who have a particular political agenda then there’s not much chance of altering our present national flag.

  10. Daveski 10

    Ahh, logic dictates that either Zet is 20 something or he wrings his hands or quite possibly both!

  11. Lindsey 11

    Do go and look at the Imperator Fish take on the Flag contraversy.

  12. gobsmacked 12

    A small footnote, before bedtime. It’s not about flags, but Maori in education (as if that mattered!). From Parliament, this evening:

    “The Maori Party has withdrawn its support for a government bill after its bid to have Maori members on polytechnic councils failed. …

    The Maori Party put up an amendment which would have ensured that councils had at least three Maori members.

    The Government didn’t accept the amendment and it was defeated.

    The Maori Party told ministers before the vote that if the amendment was unsuccessful, it would withdraw its support for the bill.

    The Government still has a majority for it to be passed and will rely on the ACT Party’s votes.

    Labour strongly opposes the bill, and said after the committee stage debate that it stripped away guaranteed representation for Maori, students, staff, industry and community representatives.” (NZPA)

    Yes, as usual, Labour vote with the Maori Party, for Maori representation and National vote it down.

    But remember, kids, National are the good guys …

  13. Rodel 13

    What Espiner can’t or probably won’t acknowledge is that National has a figurehead ‘leader’ where the PR focus is deliberately kept on Key while behind the scene decision makers work in stealth, hoping that the public won’t notice the dirty dealings.

    Unlike Key, Goff is not just a celebrity leader and is happy for the real decision makers, in Labour to be seen and heard in public as a team and not hide behind a glossy cardboard image of a leader.

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