Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: John Key a loser on flag referendum but not a failure

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Prime Minister John Key isn't used to losing. It has happened rarely during his relatively blessed adulthood and even more rarely in his seven years as Prime Minister.

Optimism, positivity and winning are part of his personal and political brand.

The two notable exceptions in office have been the reversal in 2012 of class-sizes decisions, the centre-piece of the Budget, which could be blamed on Finance Minister Bill English; and the defeat in the Northland byelection last year which he could blame on campaign maestro Steven Joyce.

Key had distance and deniability.

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He may have been ultimately responsible for those failures but he was not to blame.

The same cannot be said for the flag referendum which has retained the Union Jack over the silver fern on the New Zealand flag by 56.6 per cent to 43.2 per cent.

The loss in the flag vote is Key's to own and explain because it was his idea.

But unlike the other two losses, which were failures of judgment and tactics, the flag loss is not actually a failure of anything except failure to belong to the winning side.

It is not even a failure to persuade because Key did not campaign heavily for change.

If anything, he failed to campaign strongly enough.

He always answered questions about changing the flag but he did not lead a campaign to change it in the way the late Lloyd Morrison might have done.

Key may have thought his popularity would push it over the winning line or that Richie McCaw and Dan Carter's support for change would make the difference.

He wrongly counted on the Greens and Labour actually following their own policy and embracing the referendum rather than politicizing the process.

In any event, Key definitely thought he had enough political capital to risk a loss.

And he is right. It is not the kind of issue on which votes will turn.

And it should be easy for John Key to defend himself against inevitable criticism in the immediate wake of the result from critics.

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To those who didn't like the design of the silver fern alternative, it was the public's choice.

To those who didn't like any of the five finalists in the first referendum, they were the Flag Consideration's Panel's Choice.

To those who wanted Red Peak among the finalists, Key and the Green Party got it added and shut them up.

To those in Labour who say a new flag should not have been considered until New Zealand becomes a republic, he can say "hypocrite."

That's not they were saying in 2014 when Trevor Mallard released its policy saying "We believe that the time has come for a change and it is right for the issue to be put to the public."

To those who did not want a referendum at all, did they want a choose imposed on them?

To those who thought it was a waste of money, it is not what they were saying in 2013 on the referendum for state asset sales for which the Government had received a clear mandate at the 2011 election.

To those say who say people should have been asked first if they wanted change, it was a question biased towards no change.

The only argument John Key cannot hope to win is against those who pitted themselves against the flag and the process because it was Key's idea.

There is no good answer to such opposition.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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