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New Zealand flag debate

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New Zealand flag debate
The current 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 derivative of the Blue Ensign, some feel that it does not represent New Zealand's current status as an independent, sovereign nation. Instead it alludes to New Zealand being a colony or sub-part of the United Kingdom, which is anachronistic.[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%; 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.[9][16]
  • 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] Rhys Jones, former chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, noted that the flag has already been changed during New Zealand's history, and a salient legacy of the Gallipoli campaign was discussion of the nation's independent identity.[19]

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.[20]


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.[21] 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.[22]


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 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, 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."[23]

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.[24]


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.[25]

In January 2014, Prime Minister John Key floated the idea of a referendum on a new flag at the 2014 general election.[26] The proposal was met with mixed response.[27][28]

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.[29] 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. Each stage will be a postal referendum with a voting period of three weeks.[30] The process is expected to cost $25.7 million.[31]

Pre-referenda process[edit]

Cross-Party Group[edit]

Shortly after announcing the referendum, 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. Members included Bill English (Finance Minister and leader of the group), Jonathan Young (representing National), Trevor Mallard (representing Labour), Kennedy Graham (representing Green), Marama Fox (representing Māori), David Seymour (representing ACT) and Peter Dunne (representing United Future). New Zealand First refused to participate.[3][31][32]

Flag Consideration Panel[edit]

The Flag Consideration Panel is a separate group of "respected New Zealanders" with representative age, regional, gender and ethnic demographics. Their purpose is 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 is expected to take place between May and June 2015.[33][34] The members of the Flag Consideration Panel are:[35]

Referenda legislation[edit]

The legislation to set up the referenda passed its first Parliament hearing on 12 March 2015 with a vote of 76 to 43.[36] It is being considered by the Justice and Electoral Select Committee with a report due by 29 July 2015.[37] During their public submission intake phase the RSA launched the "Fight for the Flag" campaign, also backed by New Zealand First, to reverse the question order and first ask if New Zealanders want a flag change.[38] Labour MP Trevor Mallard presented a petition signed by 30,000 people to the Committee, also asking for the question order to be reversed.[39]

Public engagement[edit]

As part of the public engagement process, flag designs and symbolism/value suggestions were solicited until 16 July, which resulted in a total of 10,293 design suggestions.[40] During that time, the Flag Consideration Panel travelled around the country for workshops and hui with markedly low attendance.[41]

First stage[edit]

Proposed question: If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?[42]

The first referendum is planned for November 2015. It will ask voters to rank any number of the four design options in the Flag Consideration Panel's shortlist.[31][35][43]

Second stage[edit]

Proposed question: What is your choice for the New Zealand flag?[42]

The second referendum is planned for April 2016. It will ask voters to choose between the preferred alternative design from the first referendum and the current flag,[43] using the first past the post system.[44] An assumption for the status quo applies; in the event of a tied vote, the current flag will prevail.[45]

Results and implications[edit]

The referenda results are legally binding. Assuming no intellectual property issues and the referenda results are not ruled void, the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981 would be updated to reflect the new design six months to the day after the second referendum results are declared (or earlier by Order in Council). The current flag would remain the official flag until then; for example, the current flag would be flown during the 2016 Summer Olympics, four months after the second referendum is planned to take place, regardless of the results of the second referendum. This result would not change the coat of arms (which includes the current national flag), national Māori flag, nor the flags of Associated States (Cook Islands and Niue), nor the New Zealand Red Ensign (merchant marine), White Ensign (naval), police flag and fire service flag (which are based on the current flag).[9] It would also not change New Zealand's status as a constitutional monarchy in the Commonwealth of Nations.[19]

Use and legality of current flag[edit]

In the event of a flag change, it would be legal to continue to fly the current flag of New Zealand, which is "recognised as a flag of historical significance."[46] Old flags would be replaced once worn out.[9][47] Official documents depicting the current flag, such as driver licences, would be phased out as a matter of course – in the case of driver licences, this would be when licences are renewed and would take up to 10 years.

Ships would be given an extra six months to change their flag to the new design.[48]

Cost of transition[edit]

The estimated cost of updating government flags and Defence Force uniforms is at least $2.69 million. Other unknown costs include 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.[49][50] New Zealand First has accused the referendum of acting as a distraction from poverty and housing issues.[32]

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.[51] 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]

During the first Parliamentary hearing, Labour Party, NZ First, Green Party and Māori Party expressed dissatisfaction with the order of the questions. They said that the public should first be asked whether they want a change, and only continue with a second referendum if they do, or both questions compacted into one referendum, which could save millions of dollars.[20][36] However, David Seymour (ACT's representative in the Cross-Party Group) said that the planned order made sense, as the public would need to see the alternative designs before deciding on a change.[42] Professor John Burrows, chair of the Flag Consideration Panel, agreed that familiarity with proposals is a prerequisite for a properly informed decision about them.[19]

Opposition parties continued to condemn the flag as low priority compared to current issues in the public consciousness such as the education system, lack of funding to district health boards, cuts to police services, child poverty, gridlock in Auckland among other transportation problems, lack of economic diversity, immigration, the housing crisis, Māori representation and lack of written constitution. Trevor Mallard and Phil Goff cited the results of recent opinion polls that showed widespread public opposition or apathy (results are shown in the section below). These were used to argue that the referenda were unnecessary as the question was already answered by the public, in the negative. The public opposition was also contrasted with prime minister John Key's disproportionate drive to run the referenda, and they accused him of attempting a flag change as his "vanity project" or populist bread and circuses.[20]

Various members of parliament accused the process and documents of being biased. Trevor Mallard and Phil Goff claimed that the final list of members of the Flag Consideration Panel was numerically slanted towards those nominated by the National Party, despite the shortlist of candidates being roughly neutral. Kennedy Graham expressed skepticism at the official rationale that the referenda simply reflected a pre-existing public debate, and argued that recent discussion was actually deliberately sparked by the referenda announcement itself. Denis O'Rourke said that the shortlisting process was undemocratic because the Flag Consideration Panel would select the final flag design options on behalf of New Zealanders, and asking the public to choose between alternative designs before asking if they wanted a change was intentionally manipulative. Stuart Nash presented quotes in the Regulatory Impact Statement document admitting that referendum options were restricted by prior decisions by the National Party dominated Cabinet and prime minister, accusing them of pre-determining the process.[20]

Members were also concerned about the timing: some expressed disgust at the timing of the bill just before the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, some said the process was rushed, and Louisa Wall said that no significant event had occurred to warrant a flag change at this time.[20]

Once the Flag Consideration Panel started its national tour, the cost of the campaign was again criticised. Various charities and social services emphasised how much $26 million could fund to help poverty alleviation, public health and education. Also, the $4 million publicity campaign was contrasted with the low turnout; at the Christchurch event only ten people arrived.[52]

Opinion polling[edit]

Two-option polls[edit]

Date Conducted by For change Against change Undecided Notes
April 2015 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.[53]

September 2014 TVNZ 35% 65% 0% [54]
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.[55]
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.[56]
July 2013 TV3 61% 39% 0% [57]
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.[58]
2009 New Zealand Herald 25% 62% 13% [59]
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.[60]
March 2014 Research New Zealand 18% 43% 37% 2% [60]
February 2014 Research New Zealand 22% 39% 37% 1% [60]
August 2011 Research New Zealand 19% 30% 52% 1% [60]

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%.[61]


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[69] (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.[58][55][53]

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.
Flag of New Zealand Titman.svg Clark Titman 1967 Tricolour (red white and blue)[15]
Flag of New Zealand Bale.svg D.A. Bale Early 1980s Double koru[15]
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.[70]
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.[71][72]
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.[73] 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.[74]

In 2014 a similar design won a DesignCrowd competition.[75] 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.[7][76]

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."[77]
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 and has been suggested to the New Zealand Government as an alternate design for the New Zealand Flag.[78][79][80]
Studio Alexander's New Zealand flag proposal.svg Studio Alexander 2015 Won the top $20,000 prize in the Gareth Morgan Foundation's competition.
Each coloured triangle represents a culture. They coexist around the white space.[81]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

For change
Against change