Responses to the flag referendum and the TPPA have parallels overseas such as supporting Trump in the US and Brexit in Britain. A sizeable proportion of the population think that the government is not listening to them and doesn’t care about them.

Kiwiblog presents an impressive scatter-diagram which shows that the more an electorate voted for National, the more it voted for a new flag. It seems unlikely that National voters are republican and radical (especially given the views of the leader they endorse). Rather it suggests that the ’conservative’ vote for the existing flag came from voters who are not very keen on the current government. Apparently for many, the vote was not about republicanism and the future; it was a vote against current developments. The referendum gave them an opportunity to express their grumbles.

Not only the flag referendum. I have been struck by how specious a lot of the grumbling has been against the TPPA. Regular readers will know I recognise real problems with the trade agreement and only reluctantly support it because the advantages from better market access outweigh the disadvantages of the investor state dispute proposals and the more restrictive intellectual property rights.  In doing so, I accept that others may rationally balance the issues differently.

But frankly, some of the earnestly proposed arguments against the TPPA are facile. For example: ‘X is dear to my heart. There is a faint possibility that the TPPA may just compromise X (even if the agreement explicitly excludes the possibility), and therefore my organisation is opposed to the TPPA.’ What is really going on, I think, is that the objector dislikes the TPPA and is trying to generate arguments against it. To an outsider they seem thin.

I am not even sure that the TPPA is the focus of their concerns. It often seems to be that they dislike what is going on more generally – including insufficient government lack of concern with X – so that the TPPA, like the flag referendum, is a lightning rod attracting the grumbling.

This grumbling is not confined to New Zealand. I detail two examples – Britain and the US – but there are many others. (For heaven’s sake, those great internationalists, the Dutch, are voting on whether the EU should be more supportive to Ukraine.)

In Britain the lightening rod is the referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU (Brexit). (Were I a Brit, I’d be on the ‘remain’ side because I have not the foggiest idea what a realistic alternative ‘out’ would be; however this is largely irrelevant for this column’s purposes.) It is undoubtedly true that some ‘outs’ have very clear views about the sovereignty issue (to which I shall return) but many more seem to be grumbling about the state of Britain, especially after six years of austerity and the Conservative government still imposing further austerity measures. Prime Minister, David Cameron, opposes Brexit, so a vote for it is a vote against him and all his policies. (I have wondered what our flag referendum outcome would have been if John Key had favoured the existing flag.)

On the other side of the Atlantic, there is the extraordinary support for Donald Trump. Even if he does not get the Republican presidential nomination, he has demonstrated there is a significant group of grumblers who don’t like the Republican establishment and Washington governance. Those who support Bernie Sanders are the Democrat equivalent, although his campaign is not nearly so bizarre. (I am reminded of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign for president with its ‘Children’s Crusade’ involving many young people.)

Trump’s supporters centre on white working-class American males who have not fared well economically and socially in recent decades. There is a parallel here with many Brexit supporters, and I should not be at all surprised if a lot of the anti-Key grumblers in the flag referendum have similar economic characteristics. They feel left out by such increases in affluence as there have been – by the growing inequality – and are using lightning rods to express their grievances.

But there is another interpretation, most prominent in Brexit and Trump’s rhetoric and implicit in some of the grumbling about the TPPA. It is about perceptions of national sovereignty. The balance of international relations is changing; America is not the global hegemon it once was (although even if its power is diminishing, it remains the most powerful nation on earth). There is still a residual nostalgia in Britain for when it was the hegemon and a belief it can still ‘punch above its weight’. (Every country believes that.)  Many New Zealanders are nervous about an evolving world in which it seems we are losing our independence (although less a nostalgic account of our history might suggest we have never had much room to manoeuvre, except as given by the grace of our very powerful allies).

The two phenomena are partially linked. In a world of increasing international trade, finance and interdependence it is likely that, unless some active measures are taken, there will be some groups who will not be great beneficiaries, especially measured relative to others, and who may be even worse off over time. I doubt they articulate this notion with any rigor but they intuit a connection between globalisation and their struggling situation. Their response is a desire to wind back the clock to the simpler world they think existed in the past.

Well we can’t (or not by more than the 60 minutes when summertime ends). Yet it would be equally wrong to ignore their cries of anger. Responding may require a vision that Cameron, Trump and Key do not have.


Addendum After the above was drafted, the government announced that the select committee considering consider hundreds of submissions on the TPPA has had the time frame set for deliberation drastically cut from four weeks to just five days. Even if many of the submissions are not significant, the reduction is democratically disgraceful. Additionally it confirms to the grumblers that they are right; that the government is not listening to them and doesn’t care about them.