What will the New Zealand flag referendum vote mean for John Key?

Stuff.co.nz

We asked our Snapchat audience which flag they want for New Zealand. Here's what they had to say.

ANALYSIS: Voting in the final stage of New Zealand's flag referendum closes in hours, but it's not too hard to guess the result.

Prime Minister John Key, possibly the biggest fan of Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern design, insists it's "just so hard to tell" what the final outcome will be.

But a comfortable win for our current Union Jack and Southern Cross combination, which has held a two-to-one lead in most public polls, is the most likely result when the preliminary outcome is announced at 8.30pm tonight.

So what will it mean for the Government, and Key, if Lockwood's Silver Fern falls at the final hurdle?

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Key's political opponents and critics of the flag referendum have consistently tied the vote - and the likely failure of the Lockwood flag - to the Prime Minister's own popularity.

Prime Minister John Key has been wearing a Lockwood flag lapel pin since the start of the year, but his personal ...
DAVID UNWIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Prime Minister John Key has been wearing a Lockwood flag lapel pin since the start of the year, but his personal favourite looks likely to suffer a loss in the final referendum.

Labour leader Andrew Little has called the referendum a "hugely expensive and highly unpopular vanity project", while NZ First leader Winston Peters once accused Key of having a "rebranding fetish".

Key has fought back in recent days, saying he has "never actually [seen the flag vote] as part of my legacy, one way or the other".

Despite his protestations, Key has been the face of the flag change movement in New Zealand since January 2014, when he first floated the possibility of a referendum while standing outside a Lower Hutt plastics factory.

MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ

John Key's reveals which flag he would vote for and why.

A PERSONAL BLOW

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His support for a silver fern design, in particular Lockwood's Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) option, may have helped it to beat out four other alternatives in the first stage of the referendum last December.

The PM has worn a miniature Lockwood flag lapel pin since the start of the year, and was pushing for Kiwis to back New Zealand's "internationally recognisable" fern as recently as Wednesday.

Prime Minister John Key wore the New Zealand flag after Ricky Ponting pulled it out at the New Zealand Open in Queenstown.
PHOTOSPORT

Prime Minister John Key wore the New Zealand flag after Ricky Ponting pulled it out at the New Zealand Open in Queenstown.

So the Lockwood flag is inextricably tied to Key, and its likely loss will be a personal blow to a leader who has been plain about his desire for a flag that Kiwis can call their own.

The loss would perhaps be Key's highest-profile defeat as prime minister, rivalled only by his party's loss in the Northland by-election nearly a year ago - ironically at the hands of Peters, one of his biggest critics over the flag vote.

Key is flying overseas immediately after the result is announced on Thursday night, taking some time off before attending a nuclear security summit in Washington - perhaps the most obvious sign he isn't keen to dwell on the outcome.

BRUISED, NOT BEATEN

However, there are a number of reasons to think the flag vote won't move beyond personally embarrassing to politically endangering for Key.

For one, more than two million voters have already had their say - a far higher turnout than for the first stage of the referendum, which Key sees as a vindication of his push to have a public conversation about the flag.

"When some people said this isn't an issue that either captivates the minds of New Zealanders, or they're not interested, then actually I think the numbers have proven that to be incorrect."

And while some opponents of the Lockwood flag may be making their decision on political grounds, there are many who dislike the Lockwood design but still back Key and National - as well as an alternative flag

Public polls have shown National's support hovering just under the 50 per cent mark throughout the referendum process, with any potential backlash from disgruntled voters seemingly minor.

So as Key licks his wounds in Washington, there's no doubt he'll feel bruised.

But the beginning of the end for the Government? That's much less clear.

 - Stuff

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