New Zealand flag debate

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New Zealand flag debate
The national flag of New Zealand is a defaced Blue Ensign with four stars representing the Southern Cross.

New Zealand has a history of debate about whether the national flag should be changed. For several decades, alternative designs have been proposed with varying degrees of support. There is no consensus among proponents of changing the flag as to which design should replace the flag. Unlike in Australia, the flag debate in New Zealand is independent of any debate on a republic.[1][2]

A two-stage binding referendum on a flag change is planned to take place in 2015 and 2016, with alternative flag options to be determined.[3]


Arguments for change[edit]

Proponents for change argue that:

  • The national flag is too similar to the flag of Australia and the two are often confused.[4] For example, in 1984 the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was greeted by New Zealand flags when visiting Ottawa,[5][6] and the current New Zealand prime minister John Key has been seated under the Australian flag in several international meetings.[7]
  • As a defaced Blue Ensign, some feel that it does not represent New Zealand's current status as an independent, sovereign nation. Instead it supposedly alludes to New Zealand being a colony or sub-part of the United Kingdom, which some feel is an anachronism given that New Zealand's monopolistic economic, political and demographic links with the United Kingdom have loosened and it now has links across the world.[8][9]
  • The national flag exclusively acknowledges those of British heritage whilst ignoring New Zealand's Māori population and other ethnic groups[10] Some have called this inappropriate because the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori heritage are significant parts of New Zealand's history, and because New Zealand is a multi-ethnic society with increasingly diverse demographics.[9] For example, the 1961 census reported that 92% of the population had European ancestry,[11] but by the 2013 census it had changed to 74.0%; the figure is as low as 59.3% in Auckland.[12]

Arguments against change[edit]

Opponents to change argue that:

  • The national flag has "stood the test of time".[13] Some New Zealanders feel attached to the flag as it has been part of the country's history; these events are what give the flag its symbolic and emotional value rather than the instrinsic design itself.[9][14] For example, all poll results from 2014 show that a large majority of the public are opposed to changing the flag or at least do not see it as a pressing issue (see section below).
  • The Union Jack in the flag represents New Zealand's strong past and present ties to the United Kingdom[15] and its history as a part of the British Empire, and the Southern Cross represents its location in the South Pacific.[16][9]
  • Proposals focus too much on Māori and Pacific designs when most of New Zealand's heritage, culture, linguistic background and political institutions are British derived.[14]
  • Generations of New Zealanders have fought and died under it during many battles.[5] Changing the flag would thus be disrespectful to their efforts and sacrifice. Note that the first time the Flag of New Zealand was flown in battle was from the HMS Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate in 1939.[17] However, New Zealand flags were flown in World War I, such as the Quinn's Post New Zealand flag, flown during the Gallipoli campaign.[18]

History of debate[edit]


Debate on keeping or changing the New Zealand Flag started before May 1973, when a remit to change the flag was voted down by the Labour Party at their national conference.[19] In November 1979 the Minister of Internal Affairs, Allan Highet, suggested that the design of the flag should be changed, and sought an artist to design a new flag with a silver fern on the fly. The proposal attracted little support.[20]


In 1988, Minister of Foreign Affairs Russell Marshall made a call for a flag change, which also had little effect.[5]

The New Zealand Listener magazine held a flag design contest in 1989, attracting nearly 600 entries. Out of the seven semi-finalists, which included the national flag and the United Tribes Flag, the national flag won with a minority vote of 45.6%.[5]


In February 1992 the former Minister of Maori Affairs, Matiu Rata, called for a flag change "to re-establish our national identity".

In 1998, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley backed Cultural Affairs Minister Marie Hasler's call for the flag to be changed. Shipley, along with the New Zealand Tourism Board, supported the quasi-national silver fern flag, using a white silver fern on a black background, along the lines of the Canadian maple leaf flag.[15]

Both of these events were met with opposition from the Returned Services' Association.


In 2004, the NZ Trust was founded by Lloyd Morrison with the aim of bringing about a non-binding referendum on the subject. Under New Zealand law, a referendum may be held on any issue if 10% of electors sign a petition which is presented to Parliament. The Trust launched their petition for such a referendum in 2005. Their campaign used a stylised silver fern flag designed by Cameron Sanders.

In response to the petition, the New Zealand Flag Institute was founded to oppose the referendum campaign and promote the current flag, as well as to offer a more scholarly view of the flag. The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association (RNZRSA), the New Zealand organisation for war veterans, did not openly back the current flag at its annual conference, passing a remit that "It is the view of RNZRSA that any change to the New Zealand Flag should be solely the prerogative of the people of New Zealand as determined by a substantial majority of electors in a referendum. It is also the association's view that this matter should be taken out of the political arena."[21]

The petition attracted 100,000 signatures out of the required approximately 270,000 and was withdrawn in July 2005, well before the general election in September. The NZ Trust cited public apathy to change as the main reason for withdrawing the petition.[22]


In 2012, the NZ Transport Agency flew the Tino Rangatiratanga flag alongside the New Zealand flag on the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day.

On 5 August 2010, Labour list MP Charles Chauvel introduced a member's bill for a consultative commission followed by a referendum on the New Zealand flag.[23]

In January 2014, Prime Minister John Key floated the idea of a referendum on a new flag at the 2014 general election.[24] The proposal was met with mixed response.[25][26]

Later in March, Key announced that New Zealand would hold a referendum within the next three years asking whether or not to change the flag design should the National party be re-elected for a third term.[27] Following National's re-election the details of the referendum were announced.[3]


A two-stage binding referendum is planned to take place in 2015 and 2016, after public consultation and input. The process is expected to cost $25.7 million.[28]

Pre-referenda process[edit]

Shortly after announcing the referendum, party leaders were invited to a Cross-Party Group. The purpose of the Cross-Party Group is to review draft legislation allowing for the referenda to take place, and to nominate candidates for a Flag Consideration Panel by mid February 2015. Members include Bill English (Finance Minister and leader of the group), Jonathan Young (representing National), Trevor Mallard (representing Labour), Kennedy Graham (representing Green), Marama Fox (representing Maori), David Seymour (representing ACT) and Peter Dunne (representing United Future). New Zealand First has refused to participate.[29][3][28]

The Flag Consideration Panel will be a separate group of "respected New Zealanders" with representative age, regional, gender and ethnic demographics. Their purpose will be to publicise the process, seek flag submissions and suggestions from the public, and to decide on a final shortlist of 3-4 suitable options for the first referendum. Public consultation is expected to take place between May and August 2015. [30]

First stage[edit]

The first referendum is planned to be held in November or December 2015. It will ask the public to choose from a list of options including the Flag Consideration Panel's shortlist and the current flag. The voting process may be ranked or first past the post, pending decision from the Cross-Party Group.[31][28]

Second stage[edit]

The second referendum is planned for April 2016. It will be a run-off between the preferred alternative design from the first referendum and the current flag.[31] The Cross-Party Group may decide to cancel the second referendum in the event that a single design gains over 50% of votes in the first referendum.[28]

Results and implications[edit]

The referenda results are legally binding. Assuming no intellectual property issues, the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981 would be updated to reflect the new design.[9]

In the event of a flag change, it would be legal to continue to fly the old flags, which would be replaced once worn out. This result would not change the coat of arms, national Māori flag, the flags of Associated States (Cook Islands and Niue), nor the New Zealand Red Ensign (merchant marine), White Ensign (naval), police flag or fire service flag which are based on the current flag.[32][9] The estimated cost of updating government flags and Defence Force uniforms is at least $2.69 million. Other unknown costs include updating drivers licences, updating government ships, updating trademarks and logos, publicity of the new flag, excess stock of old flags (including products and souvenirs containing it), and updating all flags, packaging, uniforms and marketing material in the private and sporting sectors. The government will not provide compensation for the cost of adopting the new flag.[9]


Opposition parties and Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association (RSA) president B.J. Clark have criticised the referendum plan for costing millions that could be spent on other issues.[33][34] New Zealand First has accused the referendum of acting as a distraction from poverty and housing issues.[29]

John Key has defended the cost of the referendum by stating that it is the price to ensure a genuine democratic process and would be a one-off cost for the next "50 to 100 years" regardless of the result.[35] David King pointed out that a stronger brand image for the country could lead to a net financial gain, especially through exports and tourism.[9]

Opinion polling[edit]

Two-option polls[edit]

Date Conducted by For change Against change Undecided Notes
September 2014 TVNZ 35% 65% 0% [36]
March 2014 New Zealand Herald 40.6% 52.6% 6.8% Sample size was 750. When presented with specific design options, a plurality of 42.9% preferred the silver fern.[37]
February 2014 TVNZ 28% 72% 0% The poll also found that only 2% thought that changing the flag was an important issue in the 2014 General Election.[38]
July 2013 TV3 61% 39% 0% [39]
2010 New Zealand Herald 52.3% 44.4% 3.3% When presented with specific design options, a majority of 52.5% preferred the silver fern.[40]
2009 New Zealand Herald 25% 62% 13% [41]
August 1999 National Business Review 24% 64% 12% When presented with the silver fern flag, the numbers changed to 33% supporting change and 60% against. [15]

Three-option polls[edit]

Date Conducted by For change Neutral Against change Don't know/Refused Notes
September/October 2014 Research New Zealand 19% 37% 43% 1% Sample size was 1001. Younger respondents were significantly against change compared to older respondents, but no other differences existed between demographic groups.[42]
March 2014 Research New Zealand 18% 43% 37% 2% [42]
February 2014 Research New Zealand 22% 39% 37% 1% [42]
August 2011 Research New Zealand 19% 30% 52% 1% [42]

Four-option polls[edit]

Date Conducted by Yes, change,

to the silver fern

Yes, change,

but to something else

Not bothered

either way

No, we should not change Don't know Notes
February 2014 Fairfax Media/Ipsos Poll 17.9% 23.7% 18.7% 38.6% 1.1% Sample size was 1018. Total 'change vote' was 41.6%.[43]


In 2009, the New Zealand Herald surveyed various political party leaders and the twenty two members of the Order of New Zealand, with the results showing an even split.[5]


Silver fern flag[edit]

Main article: Silver fern flag
The silver fern flag

The silver fern flag is a popular unofficial flag of New Zealand. The silver fern itself is a quasi-national emblem with current and historic usage including:

The proposal of replacing the national flag of New Zealand with the silver fern flag has been supported by Cultural Affairs Minister Marie Hasler, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley and the New Zealand Tourism Board in 1998,[15] and current Prime Minister John Key in 2010[51] (though has since changed his preference to Lockwood's hybrid design shown below).[7] Amongst the public, polls have shown that the silver fern is the most preferred alternative design for a new national flag.[40][37]

However, the New Zealand Flag Institute criticises the silver fern as the logo of some of New Zealand's sporting teams rather than the country itself.[14] For example, the black and white silver fern design is employed by New Zealand's national netball ("Silver Ferns"), rugby union ("All Blacks"), rugby sevens ("All Blacks Sevens"), rugby league ("Kiwis"), men's hockey, women's hockey, association football ("All Whites"), cricket ("Black Caps"), Futsal ("Futsal White") and wheelchair rugby ("Wheel Blacks") teams.


Image Designer Date Notes
Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand.svg James Busby 1834 The United Tribes Flag was the national flag of New Zealand when it first declared independence in 1835, until the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.
Koru flag.svg Friedensreich Hundertwasser 1983 The koru flag, represents an uncurling fern frond in the form of a stylised koru, a traditional Māori carving pattern. This flag is occasionally seen around the country.[52]
NZflag proposal-dignan.svg James Dignan 2002 This proposal was displayed in the New Zealand Herald on 9 May 2002, at the time of the centenary of the current flag. It combines elements from the national flag, the Tino rangatiratanga flag and the silver fern flag. This combination looked to links with both the United Kingdom and Polynesia.[53][54]
Kyle Lockwood's New Zealand Flag.svg Kyle Lockwood 2004 This proposal won a Wellington newspaper flag competition in July 2004 and appeared on TV3 in 2005 after winning a poll which included the present national flag.[55] The fern represents the people of New Zealand and the Southern Cross represents the location of New Zealand. The blue represents the ocean, the red represents the Māori and wartime sacrifices, and white represents the "land of the long white cloud" epithet.[56]

In 2014 a similar design won a DesignCrowd competition.[57] This general design is currently John Key's preferred proposal but has been criticised on aesthetic grounds by Hamish Keith, Paul Henry and John Oliver.[58][7]

Helen Clark's New Zealand Flag.svg Helen Clark 2007 Helen Clark made her proposal while Prime Minister of New Zealand. She said that deleting the Union Jack from the New Zealand flag was a possibility if people wanted to redesign the flag, leaving it as a "rather attractive Southern Cross."[59]
Koru Fern NZ Flag.jpg James Bowman 2015 The Koru Fern combines two iconic New Zealand symbols: the silver fern and the koru. It is one design currently helping stimulate debate.[60][61]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "New Zealand Republic". Retrieved 2010-06-27. 
  2. ^ "New Zealand Flag Change Not Anti-Royalist". Retrieved 2010-06-27. 
  3. ^ a b c "First steps taken towards flag referendum". New Zealand Government. 29 October 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c Brian Sweeney (February 2004). "Eight Reasons To Change The New Zealand Flag". NZ Trust. Retrieved 8 September 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d e "Calls for a new New Zealand flag". NZ History Online. 2011-01-10. Retrieved 2011-09-30. 
  6. ^ "Monarchists Prove Case for Australian Flag Change". Ausflag. 
  7. ^ a b c "How about a bungee-jumping sheep? John Oliver mocks NZ flag". New Zealand Herald. 4 November 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  8. ^ "New Zealand Heritage and Identity - Flags". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 23 July 2010. Retrieved 6 September 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h King, David, Regulatory Impact Statement: Considering Changing the New Zealand Flag, New Zealand Ministry of Justice 
  10. ^ "Have Your Say". NZ Trust. February 2004. Retrieved 8 September 2011. 
  11. ^ Collins, Simon (5 October 2010). "Ethnic mix changing rapidly". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  12. ^ Statistics New Zealand (15 April 2014). 2013 Census QuickStats about culture and identity. Wellington, New Zealand: Statistics New Zealand. ISBN 978-0-478-40890-4. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  13. ^ Paul Chapman (28 January 2005). "Campaigners want British link removed from New Zealand flag". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-03-19. 
  14. ^ a b c "Why the Flag Should Not Change". New Zealand Flag Institute. 2005. Retrieved 8 September 2011. 
  15. ^ a b c d John Moody. "Past Attempts to Change New Zealand's Flag". The XIX International Congress of Vexillology. 
  16. ^ David Round (2 April 2005). "Colours of our rich inheritance". The Press. 
  17. ^ "The "Diggers' " flag, the New Zealand Ensign, flying at the masthead of Achills during the naval battle" LXXI (46). Auckland Star. 23 February 1940. p. Page 9. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  18. ^ "NZ History - Quinn's Post Flag". Retrieved 22 March 2015. 
  19. ^ John Moody. "Past Attempts to Change New Zealand’s Flag". New Zealand Flag Association. 
  20. ^ "New Zealand - Proposals for a new flag". Flags of the World. 29 September 2006. Retrieved 2007-09-01. 
  21. ^ "Annual Conference 2005: Remits". Royal New Zealand Returned Services' Association. 16 July 2005. 
  22. ^ "Editorial: Fervour for the flag carries the day". New Zealand Herald. 4 August 2005. Retrieved 9 September 2011. 
  23. ^ "Bill advocates consultative debate on new flag". 5 August 2010. 
  24. ^ Davison, Isaac (30 January 2014). "Key suggests vote on New Zealand flag". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  25. ^ "Flag change in the wind". Radio New Zealand News. 6 February 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  26. ^ Beech, James (4 February 2014). "Opinions vary on changing NZ flag". Otago Daily Times. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  27. ^ Chapman, Paul (11 March 2014). "New Zealand to hold referendum on changing to 'post-colonial' flag". The Telegraph (London). Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  28. ^ a b c d Bill English (29 October 2014). "Cabinet Paper 451". New Zealand Government. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  29. ^ a b Gulliver, Aimee (17 November 2014). "Flag referendum a 'distraction'". Fairfax Media. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  30. ^ "Process at a glance". New Zealand Government. 29 October 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  31. ^ a b "Process to consider changing New Zealand flag". New Zealand Government. 29 October 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  32. ^ "Frequently asked questions". New Zealand Government. 29 October 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  33. ^ "New Zealanders to vote on changing Union Jack-style flag". Luxemburger Wort. 29 October 2014. 
  34. ^ Cook, Frances; McQuillan, Laura (30 October 2014). "MPs torn on flag referendum". Newstalk ZB. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  35. ^ Bennett, Adam (30 October 2014). "Taxpayers face $25 million bill even if old flag stays". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  36. ^ "Two-thirds against changing flag, poll shows". TVNZ. 27 September 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  37. ^ a b "Kiwis Back Union Jack Flag". The New Zealand Herald. 19 March 2014. Retrieved 1 November 2014. 
  38. ^ "Three quarters of Kiwis against changing flag - poll". TVNZ. 25 February 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  39. ^ "The Vote: The result". 16 July 2013. [dead link]
  40. ^ a b Cheng, Derek (12 February 2014). "Flag debate: NZers favour new design - survey". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  41. ^ Chapman, Paul (4 February 2010). "New Zealand debates dropping British flag from national ensign". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  42. ^ a b c d "Should New Zealand's National Flag Be Changed?". Research New Zealand. 5 November 2014. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  43. ^
  44. ^ "Coat of arms". Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2011-05-04. Retrieved 2011-09-30. 
  45. ^ "New Zealand Coinage Specifications". Reserve Bank of New Zealand. Retrieved 2011-09-30. 
  46. ^ "Silver Ferns". Netball New Zealand. Retrieved 2011-09-30. 
  47. ^ "All Blacks". All Blacks. Retrieved 2011-09-30. 
  48. ^ "Digger History: Badges of New Zealand". 1915-11-09. Retrieved 2010-06-27. 
  49. ^ 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott NZ
  50. ^ "A New Flag". NZ Retrieved 2011-09-30. 
  51. ^ "Flag debate: John Key favours silver fern". New Zealand Herald. 8 February 2010. 
  52. ^ "Hundertwasser koru flag". Ministry of Culture and Heritage. 25 May 2011. 
  53. ^ "Flags of the World - Flag of New Zealand". Retrieved 25 May 2011. 
  54. ^ "James Dignan - flag articles". Retrieved 25 May 2011. 
  55. ^ "Campbell Live Flag Poll". TV3. 8 April 2005. Retrieved 25 May 2011. 
  56. ^ "Silver Fern Flag - Our Design". Retrieved 25 May 2011. 
  57. ^ "Kiwi wins flag design competition". 3 News. 5 June 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014. 
  58. ^ Lush, Martin (6 June 2014). "Winning design of new NZ flag contest slammed". Radio Live. Retrieved 28 December 2014. 
  59. ^ "Clark stimulates flag debate with call to rub out Union Jack". New Zealand Herald. 28 September 2007. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  60. ^ "Flag signals". North & South (New Zealand magazine). April 2015. Retrieved 21 March 2015. 
  61. ^ "Symbol solution". New Zealand Listener. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 21 March 2015. 

External links[edit]

For change
Against change