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John Armstrong: Key's politics hoisted on high in timing of vote

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Prime Minister John Key's critics say he is using the flag to surreptitiously tap into the rich veins of patriotism and national identity that lurk in voters' subconscious. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key's critics say he is using the flag to surreptitiously tap into the rich veins of patriotism and national identity that lurk in voters' subconscious. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Prime Minister can insist as much as he likes, as often as he likes and for as long as he likes that he is not playing politics in campaigning for a change in the New Zealand flag. His opponents see things differently.

John Key may well have sought to make the process he wants followed in setting up a referendum on a new flag as politics-free as possible by declaring that the referendum will not be held until the next Parliament is in place and after next year's marking of the Gallipoli centenary.

That stipulation by Key is in itself highly political. He does not want to get into a feud with members of the Returned Services Association at a time when the current flag will carry a special meaning for the many young and old attending Anzac Day ceremonies. Key would be the big loser; his referendum would be stillborn.

Key intends to keep the referendum process on track by establishing a cross-party committee of MPs that will be given the task of coming up with the best option for the referendum.

In a further attempt to inject consensus into the process, a steering group of eminent New Zealanders will be charged with ensuring there is a proper debate with plenty of public input in terms of submitting designs for a new flag.

Key is also making it clear that the referendum will not be allowed to "intrude" on the 2017 election - just as it will not interfere with this year's ballot.

However, despite Key having canned any thought of holding a referendum on the same day as the September 20 general election, the Prime Minister's critics say his push to change the flag has already done so.

They see Key as using the flag to surreptitiously tap into the rich veins of patriotism and national identity that lurk in voters' subconscious. Those critics argue that if Key did not want the referendum to intrude on this year's election, why did he announce the details of his flag-change plan less than 24 hours after announcing the date of the election.

His critics will also interpret Key's initiative as a means of painting National as a progressively-minded party appealing to younger and liberal-minded voters who under normal circumstances would by now be aligning themselves with Labour.

The biggest plus for Key, however, in advocating a fundamental change in the national symbol is that they are witnessing Key displaying a crucial attribute in determining how people vote - leadership. And you cannot put a price on that.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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