Here are some reckons, for what they’re worth.
(1) It was all about Key
The instant media reaction last night was telling. It wasn’t reflections on nationhood, history, identity, vexillology, the mood of the nation or whatever. It was all about protecting Key. From the usual suspects of course:
Patrick Gower Flag fail won’t break ‘Brand Key’
Audrey Young John Key a loser but not a failure
Tracy Watkins Flag vote – defeated, but not humiliated
Smooth work from the well practiced Team Key, but kinda proving the point that this was all about him all the time, and everyone knows it.
(2) Conservatives are conservative
Despite all the attempts to blame Labour – “Labour Derangement Syndrome” (LDS) if you like – the main reason that Key lost is that he didn’t take his own people with him. In his own electorate of Helensville electorate the vote was an exact match for the national vote, 56.6% for the current flag. Conservatives are conservative and they don’t like change (unless you believe the LDS nonsense that Labour won over John Key’s electorate).
(3) Key’s hubris blew it for him
With the RSA against change it was obvious that there was going to be a big conservative vote for the status quo. Key had half his own people against him and he needed broad support from across the spectrum. He had his chance when (as Andrew Little puts it) there was a clear consensus and request from other parties to have a yes/no vote first. Key should have taken the opportunity to build a genuine cross-party process. Instead he went off on his usual ego-trip, alienated the other parties, ran a flawed and partisan process, and sealed his own fate. (The international media reaction has been pretty harsh in this respect.)
In short Key’s hubris blew it for him. He thought he could force change through by his usual methods, control of the media / celebrity narrative and the force of his “popularity”. Well, control of the narrative wasn’t enough, and his “popularity” is a busted flush. With very personal losses now in Northland and the flag referendum, it’s clear that there is a difference between ticking “preferred PM” and actual popularity.
(4) Change will come
While this was a flawed process I think it’s clear that change will come, probably as part of NZ becoming a republic. Key’s lesson in how not to do it at least leaves us with some guidelines on how to do it right next time:
(a) It must be a genuine, cross-party process with no individual trying to dominate.
(b) It must include Māori, who voted overwhelmingly (and for obvious reasons) for the current flag.
(c) It must reach out to the RSA and conservatives to be respectful of their views.
(d) The process must be independent, fair, and also competent (include relevant expertise!)
Having said that, the future depends on the young, and there were various indications in the whole process that young voters were among the strongest supporters of the current flag. Is this because the young are becoming more conservative generally, because they were more inclined to exercise a protest vote, because they (in this media age) have a better design / aesthetic taste, or some other reason completely? Someone really should take the trouble to find out before we go through this whole process again.
PS – funniest comment from last night:
John Key's legacy
— Jeff Howell السلام عليكم (@jeffieh) March 24, 2016