New Zealand flag debate
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. Common criticisms of the current design of the New Zealand flag are its similarity to the Australian flag and the inappropriateness of retaining the Union Jack in the design. A series of polls conducted since the 1970s have shown that a majority of New Zealanders prefer the current flag.
The New Zealand Parliament held a two-stage binding referendum on a flag change in 2015 and 2016. The four designs chosen as finalists faced criticism for their similarity and reliance on sporting iconography more closely associated with a subset of the population. The referendum was also criticised as an expensive distraction from more important political issues (especially because of the overt endorsement of two silver fern flag designs by Kyle Lockwood (one of which was the flag design at top right) by then-Prime Minister John Key and the National Party) and for the amateur nature of the crowd-sourced entries. Voters chose to retain the current flag, by a vote of 56.6% to 43.1%. Turnout in the referendum was 67%—relatively low compared to the 74-80% turnout in general elections in the 21st century. Prominent New Zealand satirist Guy Williams' tweet about of the referendum's result said, "Imagine a flag (Kyle Lockwood's).... so bad it lost to [the current flag]". It was widely named one of the worst—and funniest—political, social and cultural disasters of the 21st century, and damaged the reputation of Prime Minister John Key, who resigned in December 2016. Journalist Claire Robinson labelled it as a toxic example of groupthink in conservative, populist governments, writing: "I can't figure how the panel can rationalise drawing on old symbols as a way of celebrating us as progressive."
Arguments for change
Proponents for change argue that:
- The national flag is very similar to the flag of Australia and the two are often confused. 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, and the former New Zealand prime minister John Key says he has been seated under the Australian flag in several international meetings.
- 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.
- The national flag exclusively acknowledges those of British heritage whilst ignoring New Zealand's Māori population and other ethnic groups. 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. For example, the 1961 census reported that White New Zealanders made up 92% of the population, overwhelmingly descendants of Anglo-Celtic settlers. However, by the 2018 census the proportion of those identifying with any European ethnic background had dropped to 70.2%, and included a greater diversity of ethnic origins in Europe; in Auckland, Whites make up as few as 59.3% of the population.
Arguments against change
Opponents to change argue that:
- The financial cost of a country changing its national flag outweighs any advantages.
- The national flag has not been changed for many years (it has "stood the test of time"). 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. 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 and its history as a part of the British Empire, and the Southern Cross represents its location in the South Pacific.
- 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. 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; however, the New Zealand national Blue Ensign flag was flown at Quinn's Post during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915. 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.
History of debate
World War II
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. 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.
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%.
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.
Both of these events were met with opposition from the Returned Services' Association.
In 2004, the NZ Flag.com 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."
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 Flag.com Trust cited public apathy to change as the main reason for withdrawing the petition.
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. Following National's re-election the details of the referendum were announced.
Shortly after the referendum announcement, party leaders reviewed draft legislation and selected candidates for a Flag Consideration Panel. The purpose of this group was to publicise the process, seek flag submissions and suggestions from the public, and decide on a final shortlist of options. Open consultation and design solicitation garnered 10,292 design suggestions from the public, later reduced to a longlist of 40 designs and then a shortlist of 4 designs to contend in the first referendum.
The first referendum took place between 20 November and 11 December 2015 and asked, "If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?" Voters were presented with several options selected by the Flag Consideration Panel. The black, white, and blue silver fern flag by Kyle Lockwood advanced to the second referendum.
The second referendum took place between 3 and 24 March 2016 and asked voters to choose between the selected alternative (the black, white and blue silver fern flag) and the existing New Zealand flag. The final decision was to keep the current flag.
Reception of the process and the official options were highly critical, with no great enthusiasm shown among the public. From an aggregation of analyses, the consensus was that the referendum was "a bewildering process that seems to have satisfied few".
|Date||Conducted by||For change||Against change||Undecided||Notes|
|10–15 March 2016||UMR||35%||58%||7%||This poll was framed around the second referendum's "Silver Fern with Black, White and Blue" design as the alternative flag. National voters were more likely to vote for change than those affiliated with other political parties. Younger voters were most against change. Sample size was 750 and margin of error was 3.6%.|
|25–29 February 2016||UMR||32%||59%||9%||This poll was framed around the second referendum's "Silver Fern with Black, White and Blue" design as the alternative flag. National voters were more likely to vote for change than those affiliated with other political parties. Women were more likely to be against change than men. Sample was 750 eligible voters and margin of error was 3.6%.|
|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.|
|January 2016||UMR||35%||65%||0%||This poll was conducted after the first referendum had been completed and the "Silver Fern with Black, White and Blue" design was selected as the alternative flag design for the second referendum. 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. 80% of that group (i.e. 16% of the whole sample) saw the vote as a way to "send a message to John Key". Sample size was 750 and margin of error was 3.6%.|
|8 December 2015||HorizonPoll||34%||58%||7%||The poll identified "Silver Fern with Black, White and Blue" and "Silver Fern with Red, White and Blue" as the most popular designs out of the referendum shortlist. Sample size was 2075 and margin of error was 2.2%.|
|November 2015||TV3/Reid Research||28%||65%||7%||Sample size and margin of error unknown.|
|8–16 September 2015||Reid Research||25%||69%||6%||The question was asked specifically in relation to the referendum shortlist designs. Sample was 1000 eligible voters and margin of error was 3.1%.|
|14–24 August 2015||The New Zealand Herald||23%||53%||24%||This poll was conducted after the referendum shortlist had been revealed. Women were more likely to be against change (61%) compared to men (44%). Sample was 750 eligible voters and margin of error was 3.6%.|
|April 2015||The New Zealand Herald||25%||70%||5%||This poll was conducted after the flag referendum legislation passed in parliament and its details were finalised. 80% agreed that the referendums should first ask if the public wants a change before presenting other designs. When asked about specific design elements, a plurality of 45% preferred the silver fern, followed by the southern cross (18%). Sample was 750 eligible voters and margin of error was 3.6%.|
|September 2014||TVNZ||35%||65%||0%||Sample size was "almost 1000".|
|6–16 March 2014||The New Zealand Herald||40.6%||52.6%||6.8%||When asked about specific design elements, a plurality of 42.9% preferred the silver fern, followed by the koru. Resistance to change was higher amongst women, Aucklanders and those in the youngest and oldest age brackets. Sample was 750 eligible voters and margin of error was 3.5%.|
|February 2014||Colmar Brunton||28%||72%||0%||The poll also found that 85% wanted a change to be decided by the public rather than the government, and that only 2% thought that changing the flag was an important issue in the 2014 general election. Sample size unknown.|
|2012||University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington||29.5%||53.1%||17.4%||Support for a flag change was highest among Green Party voters (49% in favour) and lowest among National Party voters (26% in favour). Sample size was 12182.|
|January/February 2010||The New Zealand Herald||52.3%||44.4%||3.3%||When asked about specific design elements, a majority of 52.5% preferred the silver fern, followed by the kiwi (18%), koru (13%), southern cross (12.5%) and tiki (1%). Aucklanders and those in the youngest and oldest age brackets expressed significantly more resistance to change. Sample size was 600 and margin of error was 4%.|
|2009||The New Zealand Herald||25%||62%||13%||Sample size unknown.|
|2004||Colmar Brunton||42%||58%||0%||Sample size unknown.|
|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.|
|Date||Conducted by||For change||Neutral||Against change||Don't know/Refused||Notes|
|October 2015||University of Auckland||12%||27%||61%||0%||The 27% figure represents the response "depends on the design". Support for changing the flag was higher amongst males, Wellingtonians and those with higher income, education and right-wing political affiliation. The youngest and oldest age brackets were most against change. Sample size was 838.|
|September/October 2014||Research New Zealand||19%||37%||43%||1%||Younger respondents were significantly against change compared to older respondents, but no other differences existed between demographic groups (gender, income, location and ethnicity). Sample size was 1001.|
|March 2014||Research New Zealand||18%||43%||37%||2%||Sample size was 500.|
|February 2014||Research New Zealand||22%||39%||37%||1%||Sample size was 500.|
|August 2011||Research New Zealand||19%||30%||52%||1%||Sample size was 1252.|
|Date||Conducted by||Yes, change,
to the silver fern
but to something else
|No, we should not change||Don't know||Notes|
|February 2014||Fairfax Media/Ipsos||17.9%||23.7%||18.7%||38.6%||1.1%||Total 'change vote' was 41.6%. Sample size was 1018 and margin of error was 3.0%.|
Silver fern flag
- The coat of arms of New Zealand
- The artwork on the New Zealand passport and entry visa
- The paint scheme on aircraft operated by Air New Zealand
- The visual identity of several government bodies, including the logo of Immigration New Zealand
- The New Zealand one-dollar coin
- The Silver Ferns, New Zealand's national netball team
- The All Blacks, New Zealand's national rugby team
- The Black Caps, New Zealand's national cricket team
- New Zealand Army Second Division military insignia
- New Zealand military insignia during the Second Boer War (1899–1902)
- All tombstones of fallen New Zealand soldiers maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission contain a silver fern symbol
- New Zealand athletes competing in the boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics competed under the NZOC flag, which is the silver fern flag superimposed over the Olympic rings.
- The NZ Flag.com Trust in their 2005 campaign
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, and ex-Prime Minister John Key in 2010. 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. Amongst the public, polls have shown that the silver fern is the most preferred alternative design for a new national flag.
However, the New Zealand Flag Institute criticises the black and white silver fern design as the logo of some of New Zealand's sporting teams rather than the country itself. This design originated from the All Blacks and is also currently used by New Zealand's national netball ("Silver Ferns"), 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
On 1 September 2015, the Flag Consideration Panel announced the final four designs to be included in the first referendum. 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.
|Alofi Kanter||Silver Fern (Black and White)||A variation of the silver fern flag which included the silver fern and the black and white colour scheme. This design uses counterchanging and the fern design from the New Zealand government's Masterbrand logo.
|Kyle Lockwood||Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue)||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.
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.
|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 was prime minister John Key's preferred proposal.
|Andrew Fyfe||Koru (Black)||Features a Māori 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.
|Aaron Dustin||Red Peak||This 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.
|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.|
|Clark Titman||1967||Tricolour (red white and blue)|
|D.A. Bale||Early 1980s||Blue with a double koru on a broad white vertical band. The double koru was established as the logo of Air New Zealand in 1973.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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."|
|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.|
|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.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Proposed national flags of New Zealand.|
- Official referendum and flag submission site
- NZHistory – Calls for a New Flag
- New Zealand Herald flag debate article archive
- For change
- Against change