New Zealand flag debate

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This article is about the debate throughout history. For the 2015–16 referendums, see New Zealand flag referendums, 2015–16.
New Zealand flag debate
Current flag
Silver fern flag of the 2015 referendum
Morgan Foundation competition winner
Current flag and some alternatives

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 occurring independently of debate about becoming a republic.[1][2]

The New Zealand Parliament held a two-stage binding referendum on a flag change in 2015 and 2016.[3] Voters chose to retain the current flag, by a vote of 56.6% to 43.1%.[4]


Arguments for change[edit]

Flag of New Zealand.svg
Flag of New Zealand
Flag of Australia.svg
Flag of Australia

Proponents for change argue that:

  • The national flag is very similar to the flag of Australia and the two are often confused.[5] While this is not unique among world flags, it is exacerbated by Australia and New Zealand's close ties and geographic proximity. For instance, in 1984 the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was greeted by New Zealand flags when visiting Ottawa,[6][7] and the former New Zealand prime minister John Key says he has been seated under the Australian flag in several international meetings.[8]
  • As a derivative of the Blue Ensign, it does not represent New Zealand's current status as an independent, sovereign nation. Instead it alludes to New Zealand being a settler colony of the United Kingdom, which is anachronistic.[9][10]
  • The national flag exclusively acknowledges those of British heritage whilst ignoring New Zealand's Māori population and other ethnic groups.[11] 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.[10] For example, the 1961 census reported that White New Zealanders made up 92% of the population,[12] overwhelmingly descendants of Anglo-Celtic settlers. However, by the 2013 census the proportion of Whites had dropped to 74%, and included a greater diversity of ethnic origins in Europe; in Auckland, Whites make up as little as 59.3%.[13]

Arguments against change[edit]

Opponents to change argue that:

  • The financial cost of a country changing its national flag outweighs any advantages.[14][15][16][17]
  • The national flag has not been changed for many years (it has "stood the test of time").[18] Many New Zealanders feel attached to the flag, because they grew up with it and because it has become part of the country's history; these events are what give the flag its symbolic and emotional value rather than the intrinsic design itself.[10][19] For example, all poll results from 2014 show that a large majority of the public were opposed to changing the flag or at least did not see it as a pressing issue (see section below).
  • The flag is already representative of New Zealand. The Union Jack in the flag represents New Zealand's strong past and present ties to the United Kingdom[20] and its history as a part of the British Empire, and the Southern Cross represents its location in the South Pacific.[10][21]
  • Generations of young men from New Zealand who were drafted into the armies of New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth have fought and died under the Union Jack or the current flag.[6] Removing the Union Jack from the flag would be tantamount to disrespecting the efforts and sacrifice of these soldiers. The first time the current flag was officially flown in battle was from HMS Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate in 1939;[22] however, the New Zealand national Blue Ensign flag was flown at Quinn's Post during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.[23] Rhys Jones, former chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, noted that the flag had already been changed during New Zealand's history, and a salient legacy of the Gallipoli campaign is representational of the nation's independent identity.[24]

History of debate[edit]

World War II[edit]

During World War II, Prime Minister Peter Fraser received suggestions to include a Māori emblem on the flag. He deferred the matter until after the war, but never brought it up again.[25]


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.[26] 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.[27]


In 1988, Minister of Foreign Affairs Russell Marshall made a call for a flag change, which also had little effect.[6]

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%.[6]


In February 1992, the former Minister of Māori 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, by using a white silver fern on a black background, along the lines of the Canadian maple leaf flag.[20]

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."[28]

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.[29]


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.[30]

In January 2014, Prime Minister John Key floated the idea of a referendum on a new flag at the 2014 general election.[31] The proposal was met with mixed response.[32][33]

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.[34] Following National's re-election the details of the referendum were announced.[3]

2015/16 referenda[edit]

A two-stage binding referendum was held in 2015 and 2016. Each stage was a postal referendum with a voting period of three weeks.[35] The process was expected to cost $25.7 million.[36]

Shortly after announcing the referendums, party leaders were invited to a cross-party group. The purpose of the cross-party group was to review draft legislation allowing for the referenda to take place, and to nominate candidates for a Flag Consideration Panel by mid February 2015.

The Flag Consideration Panel was a separate group of "respected New Zealanders" with representative age, regional, gender and ethnic demographics. Their purpose was to publicise the process, seek flag submissions and suggestions from the public, and decide on a final shortlist of four suitable options for the first referendum. Public consultation took place between May and June 2015.[37][38]

As part of the public engagement process, flag designs and symbolism/value suggestions were solicited until 16 July, which resulted in a total of 10,292 design suggestions.[39] From the submitted designs, the Flag Consideration Panel selected an initial longlist of 40 (publicly revealed on 10 August),[40] then a final shortlist of 4 (publicly revealed on 1 September)[41] to contend in the first referendum.

After public disappointment with the official shortlist, a social media campaign aimed to add the Red Peak flag design to the referendum options became successful on 23 September 2015 when Prime Minister John Key announced that his government had agreed to pick-up legislation that was put forward by the Green Party on the same day, which means the Red Peak design will join the four flag alternatives already selected.[42][43]

First stage[edit]

If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?[44]

The first referendum took place from 20 November to 11 December 2015. It asked voters to rank the five shortlisted flag alternatives in order of preference. Voters chose option A, which contended with the current national flag in the second referendum.[36][39][45][46][47]

Second stage[edit]

What is your choice for the New Zealand flag?

The second referendum was held 3–24 March 2016. It asked voters to choose between the current New Zealand Flag and the preferred alternative design selected in the first referendum (Option 2 above).[39][48][49] With 2.1 million votes cast, voters chose to retain the current flag by 56.6% to 43.1%.[50]

Results and implications[edit]

The results of the referenda were binding, meaning the flag with the most votes in the second referendum was the official flag of New Zealand. If a new flag had been chosen, it would have come into effect six months after the second referendum result was declared, or earlier through an Order in Council declared by the Governor-General.[51] In the unlikely event of a tied vote, an assumption for the status quo would have applied.[52]

Commenting on the result, Graham Bartram, chief vexillologist at the Flag Institute, told the BBC: "There's often a fundamental misunderstanding of flags by politicians. It isn't the design but what it shows about their history and means to them. Saying you like a flag because of its design is like saying you like your family because they are all handsome or beautiful. You love them because of who they are, unconditionally. Flags are a bit like that."[53]

Opinion polling[edit]

Two-option polls[edit]

Date Conducted by For change Against change Undecided Notes
10–15 March 2016 UMR 35% 58% 7% n=750, 3.6% margin of error. National voters were more likely to vote for change; other groups were more likely to vote against change.[54]
25–29 February 2016 UMR 32% 59% 9% n=750, 3.6% margin of error.[55]
February 2016 TV3/Reid Research 30% 70% 0% 16% of those "against change" were in support of change but did not support the proposed flag design of the second referendum.[56]
January 2016 UMR 35% 65% 0% One in five were in favour of changing the national flag but disliked the proposed design of the second referendum and planned to vote against change. This polled 750 eligible voters with a 3.6% margin of error.[55]
November 2015 TV3/Reid Research 28% 65% 7% It is unknown what the polling sample was, as well as the margin of error for this poll.[57]
8–16 September 2015 Reid Research 25% 69% 6% This poll was conducted after the referendum shortlist had been revealed. Sample included 1000 eligible voters with a 3.1% margin of error.[58]
14–24 August 2015 New Zealand Herald 23% 53% 24% This polled 750 eligible voters with a 3.6% margin of error.[59]
April 2015 The New Zealand Herald 25% 70% 5% 80% agreed that the referenda should first ask if the public wants a change before presenting other designs.

Out of alternative designs, 45% preferred the Silver Fern and 18% preferred the Southern Cross. Sample size was 750.[60]

September 2014 Television New Zealand 35% 65% 0% [61]
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.[62]
February 2014 Television New Zealand 28% 72% 0% The poll also found that only 2% thought that changing the flag was an important issue in the 2014 general election.[63]
July 2013 TV3 61% 39% 0% [64]
January/February 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.[65]
2009 New Zealand Herald 25% 62% 13% [66]
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.[20]

Three-option polls[edit]

Date Conducted by For change Neutral Against change Don't know/Refused Notes
October 2015 Auckland University 12% 27% 61% 0% Support for changing the flag was positively correlated with education, household income, age and right-wing political affiliation.[67]
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.[68]
March 2014 Research New Zealand 18% 43% 37% 2% [68]
February 2014 Research New Zealand 22% 39% 37% 1% [68]
August 2011 Research New Zealand 19% 30% 52% 1% [68]

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%.[69]


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.[6]


Silver fern flag[edit]

Main article: Silver fern flag
Common version of 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,[20] and current Prime Minister John Key in 2010.[77] Key later changed his preference to Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern (Red, White & Blue) design, due to the similarity of the silver fern flag with the Jihadist black flag, used by Islamic extremist groups such as ISIL.[8] Amongst the public, polls have shown that the silver fern is the most preferred alternative design for a new national flag.[60][62][65]

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.[19] 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.

2015 Referendum shortlist[edit]

On 1 September 2015, the Flag Consideration Panel announced the final four designs to be included in the first referendum.[41] On 23 September, Prime Minister John Key confirmed the Red Peak flag would be added as a fifth option in the flag referendum after growing popular support for the design to be added to the referendum options.[43]

Image Designer(s) Name Notes
NZ flag design Silver Fern (Black & White) by Alofi Kanter.svg Alofi Kanter Silver Fern (Black and White) Variation of the silver fern flag which has the unique silver fern and black and white colour scheme.[47] This design uses counterchanging and the fern design from the New Zealand government's Masterbrand logo.[78]
NZ flag design Silver Fern (Red, White & Blue) by Kyle Lockwood.svg Kyle Lockwood Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue) According to the designer, the silver fern represents the growth of the nation and the Southern Cross represents the location of New Zealand in the antipodes. The blue represents New Zealand's clear atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean. The red represents the country's heritage and sacrifices made.[79]

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.[80] In 2014 a similar design won a DesignCrowd competition.[81]

NZ flag design Silver Fern (Black, White & Blue) by Kyle Lockwood.svg Kyle Lockwood Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) Variation of the above with black instead of red, and a different shade of blue. 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.[8][82] New Zealand Herald writer Karl Puschmann called it a design for those "sitting on the fence" who didn't want much change.[83] Members of the public have compared it unfavourably to Weet-Bix packaging, "Kiwi Party Ware" plastic plate packaging, the National Basketball Association logo, or a merger of the Labour and National party logos.[84]
NZ flag design Koru (Black) by Andrew Fyfe.svg Andrew Fyfe Koru (Black) Features a Maori koru pattern depicting an unfurling fern frond, traditionally representing new life, growth, strength and peace. In this flag it is meant to also resemble a wave, cloud and ram's horn.[47]
When this design was revealed on the shortlist, the public immediately nicknamed it "Hypnoflag" via social media.[85]
NZ flag design Red Peak by Aaron Dustin.svg Aaron Dustin Red Peak Red Peak flag also called "First to the Light", the design was inspired by the story of Rangi and Papa (a Māori creation myth) and the geography of New Zealand. It is reminiscent of tāniko patterns, tukutuku panelling and the flag of the United Kingdom.[86] After public disappointment with the official shortlist, a social media campaign aimed to add the Red Peak flag design to the referendum options became successful on 23 September 2015 when Prime Minister John Key announced that his government had agreed to pick-up legislation that was put forward by the Green Party on the same day, which means the Red Peak design will join the four flag alternatives already selected.[42][43]


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.
Flag of New Zealand Titman.svg Clark Titman 1967 Tricolour (red white and blue)[20]
Flag of New Zealand Bale.svg D.A. Bale Early 1980s Blue with a double koru on a broad white vertical band.[20] The double koru was established as the logo of Air New Zealand in 1973.
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.[87]
The-Black-and-Silver.svg John Ansell, Kenneth Wang, Grant McLachlan 1986, 2015 The Black & Silver flag is based on a stylized version of the original silver ferns used in the emblems of the military and sports representative teams of the 1880s. John Ansell’s silver fern flag designs won him a Colenso Scholarship to New York in 1986 and in 1990 came second out of 600 alternative flag designs in The Listener contest to mark New Zealand’s sesquicentennial.[88]
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 looks to links with both the United Kingdom and Polynesia.[89][90]
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."[91]
Koru Fern NZ Flag.jpg James Bowman 2015 The Koru Fern combines two iconic New Zealand symbols: the silver fern and the koru. It was one design that helped stimulate debate prior to official submissions and was submitted to the New Zealand Government as an alternative design for the New Zealand Flag.[92][93][94]
Studio Alexander's New Zealand flag proposal.svg Studio Alexander (Grant Alexander, Alice Murray, Thomas Lawlor, Jared McDowell) 2015 The Wā kāinga/Home flag won the $20,000 top prize in the Morgan Foundation's competition.
Each coloured triangle represents a culture. They coexist around the white space.[95]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

For change
Against change