John Key broke his own rule with the new flag debate: don’t get ahead of the public.
In the first few months of John Key’s new job as Prime Minister, I attended a few business breakfast lunches at which he spoke. He had a common theme back then; he had observed that government’s failed when they got ahead of the public with “big ideas”. It was an idea that spoke to the experience of the third term of the Clark Government, where environmentalism had created the ETS, and the end of florescent light bulbs. But it was also a deliberate reference to the previous Labour Government’s Rogernomics experiment, and the Muldoonist Think Big policies.
It was an indicator of the approach he would take to politics – cautious, incremental, safe.
Politicians can’t help themselves though. They all feel obliged to have “big ideas”. So Key’s National Government has given us an “open for business” tout for oil and gas exploration and Public Private Partnerships, a National Cycleway and a fibre digital network.
The gamble of a new flag was Key’s step too far ahead of the public. There was no rising public call for a flag before he mooted it. There was no strong public campaign in support of the idea or his preferred options.
Key was mostly right to draw those conclusions at the start of his Prime Ministership (although they’re easier in hindsight). Politicians lose, and Government’s get tossed out, when they get ahead of the public with fanciful ideas.