The candidates in New Zealand's follow-up rent-a-Prime-Minister flag referendum (voting now closed)
(Image by Allan Stromfeldt Christensen) Permission Details DMCA
Chances are that unless you live in or are from New Zealand (or perhaps Australia), that you didn't hear much, if anything, about New Zealand's recent referendum on whether or not to replace its 114-year-old flag. To be honest I found its flag a bit odd when I first visited ten years ago (to WWOOF for a year), and not just because it has a Union Jack on it. For while being blue with a Union Jack in the top-left corner, the only difference between it and the Australian flag is that it has four red stars instead of six white stars. Being Canadian it's not as if I had anything invested in the outcome, but when I heard last year that New Zealand's flag might be replaced, I was rather pleased to hear so. But naïve me, what I didn't clue into was how a mere flag change could be a smokescreen for more pressing matters.
First off, there was never any debate on whether or not Kiwis even wanted to replace their flag in the first place, and on top of that, the two referendums on the flag change were scheduled rather ass-backwards: instead of initially being queried on whether or not they even wanted to change their flag, the first referendum (in November and December of 2015) asked Kiwis which alternative flag out of four (then five) they preferred, while the second referendum (held March 3rd to 24th) asked Kiwis whether they wanted to adopt the flag that won the first referendum or stick with the one at hand.
Secondly, although the $26-$30 million price tag for the whole venture wasn't exactly a huge sum of money in comparison to the wads of cash that get thrown around (and conjured out of thin air) nowadays, it was, and is, a large enough sum when one considers that 305,000 Kiwi children are said to live in poverty, and that charities are reporting a huge increase in homeless pregnant women.
But in my opinion, that all pales in comparison to what I see as the rather abhorrent comment made by New Zealand's Prime Minister, and former high-financier, John Key:
In the end you have to say, what price do you put on democracy where people can genuinely have their say on a matter that is actually important?
Now, I suppose that John Key (recently named the finest actor of his generation) and I may have some differences in where our opinions and priorities lie, particularly in regards to the secretly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) which in February was signed by twelve Pacific Rim governments over in Auckland. Because the fact of the matter is that Kiwis were given no democratic opportunity to grant their yay or nay upon passage of the TPPA, something I would have also thought deserving of Key's description as "a matter that is actually important." Are we to presume then that Key believes that a cutesy flag is more important to New Zealand than matters that pertain to its economic future? Of course not. Truth is, and as the evidence appears to show, John Key has very little interest in the opinions and concerns of the general populace when it comes to matters of genuine importance.
So contrary to first impressions, I'm now seeing plenty of reasons for decrying what in all appearances was likely a diversionary flag debate whose purposes were to placate and distract New Zealand's populace from matters with actual importance, and specifically from the TPPA. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised to continually see that poll after poll determined that more than 50% of Kiwi voters consistently stood against the flag change, followed up by the final announcement that the prospective flag had been defeated in late March by a vote of 56.6% to 43.2%.
Why did it get defeated? From what I heard and read, (a) some people simply liked the current flag, (b) some people fought for the current flag and wanted to keep it, (c) the referendums and changing of the flag were seen as a waste of resources, (d) the flag change was seen as nothing but a vanity project by opposition politicians (and others), and (e) the flag "debate" was a blatant instance of New Zealand's Prime Minister holding the people in contempt, calling a flag referendum an example of actual democratic importance while denying Kiwis the opportunity to vote on matters of their economic future (the TPPA).
Moreover, the TPPA was, and is, an excellent exercise in getting Kiwis to relinquish their sovereignty, which is by no means an exaggeration. In early January a lawsuit was filed in US federal court by TransCanada Corporation over the United States' rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. Claiming that the pipeline permit denial was "arbitrary and unjustified," legal action was also filed under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through which $15 billion in damage is being sought as part of the claim ($3 billion for the denied pipeline and the rest as compensation for expected future profits).
In front of the Beehive (Parliament's Executive Wing)
(Image by Allan Stromfeldt Christensen) Permission Details DMCA
In other words, and much like NAFTA, the TPPA "trade agreement" would work to divulge the rights of citizens and the sovereignty of their nations, in favour of multinational corporate profits and interests. If a multinational corporation dislikes the outcome of a government's decision, then it heads over to an extrajudicial, investor-state tribunal (as allowed under NAFTA) to extract its "lost" profits, which might as well just be called blackmail. That is if things ever get that far, since governments may very well hesitate from undertaking such things as environmental reform out of fear of being sued.
Thanks to the TPPA, this is just one kind of unfortunate situation that New Zealand (and other signees) will undoubtedly face down the road if it chooses to make a decision in defiance of a multinational corporation.
So although I -- an outsider who rather likes New Zealand -- initially welcomed the idea of a new New Zealand flag, the whole escapade soured on me rather quickly. And to add flame to the fire (or contempt to the contemptuousness), John Key was even spotted at the TPPA-signing wearing a lapel pin of his preferred flag (the failed contender) before the final referendum had even been held. As one columnist properly put it,
Until the March referendum decides otherwise, the Prime Minister needs to set his personal feelings aside and respect our current flag. This week, Mr Key stood in front of the world as New Zealand's representative. He was representing you and me on that stage. Except his insistence on wearing a flag, that hasn't been selected by me or you, meant he didn't represent us at all.
Which brings up a fair question: If New Zealand's Prime Minister doesn't represent the people of New Zealand, who does he represent? Considering that a bunch of my Kiwi mates have their suspicions that John Key was tapped on the shoulder by his Wall Street cronies (Key used to work for Merrill Lynch and then the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) to run for New Zealand's top office so that favourable neoliberal policies could be more easily implemented, I find it rather ironic for him to have dismissed protesters outside the Auckland TPPA signing as a "rent-a-crowd" and as part of a "rent-a-protest." Because from an outsider's perspective, and as far as I can tell, all appearances seem to indicate that what New Zealand currently has is actually little more than a rent-a-Prime-Minister.
It pays to be the Wall-Street-crony rent-a-Prime-Minister
(Image by Mahinda Rajapaksa) Permission Details DMCA
To be fair though, it's not as if one can expect New Zealand's opposition party to behave any differently towards the TPPA, and not just because the opposition leader stated that his party won't pull out of the agreement if elected into power. Regardless, while John Key went ahead and made it clear that "If we don't change [the flag] by the middle of March next year, we're not changing for 50 or 100 years," I say that while having successfully nixed its recent flag change attempt, it'd now be an equally great accomplishment if Kiwis did what they could to ditch their crony-capitalism-doting rent-a-Prime-Minister (who plans to run again in 2017) for someone else who would send New Zealand off in a slightly different handbasket for what one hopes will be just a temporary hellish TPPA sojourn.
To cap it all off, nothing of what I've written implies that I'd be forever against New Zealand (or even Australia) changing its flag, just that any attempt would have to be under completely different circumstances, and with less of a hokey looking beach towel alternative that essentially replaced the Union Jack with the logo of New Zealand's most famous sports team.