Nz Flag Debate Essay Ideas

This article is about the debate throughout history. For the 2015–16 referendums, see New Zealand flag referendums, 2015–16.

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]

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]


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]

Main article: New Zealand flag referendums, 2015–16

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]

DateConducted byFor changeAgainst changeUndecidedNotes
10–15 March 2016UMR35%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 2016UMR32%59%9%n=750, 3.6% margin of error.[55]
February 2016TV3/Reid Research30%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 2016UMR35%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 2015TV3/Reid Research28%65%7%It is unknown what the polling sample was, as well as the margin of error for this poll.[57]
8–16 September 2015Reid Research25%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 2015New Zealand Herald23%53%24%This polled 750 eligible voters with a 3.6% margin of error.[59]
April 2015The New Zealand Herald25%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 2014Television New Zealand35%65%0%[61]
March 2014New Zealand Herald40.6%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 2014Television New Zealand28%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 2013TV361%39%0%[64]
January/February 2010New Zealand Herald52.3%44.4%3.3%When presented with specific design options, a majority of 52.5% preferred the silver fern.[65]
2009New Zealand Herald25%62%13%[66]
August 1999National Business Review24%64%12%When presented with the silver fern flag, the numbers changed to 33% supporting change and 60% against.[20]

Three-option polls[edit]

DateConducted byFor changeNeutralAgainst changeDon't know/RefusedNotes
October 2015Auckland University12%27%61%0%Support for changing the flag was positively correlated with education, household income, age and right-wing political affiliation.[67]
September/October 2014Research New Zealand19%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 2014Research New Zealand18%43%37%2%[68]
February 2014Research New Zealand22%39%37%1%[68]
August 2011Research New Zealand19%30%52%1%[68]

Four-option polls[edit]

DateConducted byYes, change,

to the silver fern

Yes, change,

but to something else

Not bothered

either way

No, we should not changeDon't knowNotes
February 2014Fairfax Media/Ipsos Poll17.9%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

The silver fern flag is a popular unofficial flag of New Zealand. The silver fern itself is an official national symbol, and its 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 ex-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]

Alofi KanterSilver 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]
Kyle LockwoodSilver 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]

Kyle LockwoodSilver 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]
Andrew FyfeKoru (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.
Aaron DustinRed PeakRed 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]


James Busby1834The 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 Titman1967Tricolour (red white and blue)[20]
D.A. BaleEarly 1980sBlue 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.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser1983The 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]
John Ansell, Kenneth Wang, Grant McLachlan1986, 2015The 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]
James Dignan2002This 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 Clark2007Helen 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]
James Bowman2015The 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 (Grant Alexander, Alice Murray, Thomas Lawlor, Jared McDowell)2015The 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]


Flag of New Zealand

Flag of Australia

Common version of the silver fern flag

If you care at all about visual communication — and if you aren't blind from birth, then you do — you should be following the remarkable debate about the New Zealand flag.  National flags are so enduring that it is hard to imagine a graphic design task with higher stakes.  Revising one triggers a profound argument about national identity, which ultimately comes down to a couple of questions:

  1.  One or many ideas?  Can the nation come together around one image or idea, or must there me a mash-up of several to satisfy different groups or points of view?
  2.  Fashionable or enduring?  Graphic design is so much about fashion and fun that identifying an image that will make sense for decades is harder than it sounds.  Yet that's what a flag must be – and the greatest company logos have mastered this challenge as well.

To review, the current New Zealand flag looks like this:

The Union Jack and the Southern Cross, the latter a distinctive constellation that is also on Australia's flag.   (With all due respect to defenders of this flag, both images are about New Zealand's tie to other countries, countries that the nation's identity has lately been separating from. I also understand the view that flags should never change on principle; that is a different debate.)

The New Zealand flag seems disconnected from the evolving palette of national identity.  National  imagery rarely uses the flag's colors.  Sometimes it uses blue-green colors that echo the textures of the landscape; you will find these in the customs hall at Auckland Airport for example.  Increasingly, though, the government uses black.  The association of black with New Zealand comes from another image that is so universal that some visitors probably think it's the flag already:

This image is most common in sports, as it's the logo of most national teams including the famous All Blacks of rugby, but it long ago spilled over into the general consciousness as an unofficial symbol of the country.  

If I may reveal botanical interests more suited to my other blog, this is not just any random leaf or frond.  It's based on the underside of the spectacular Silver Fern, Cyathea dealbata, one of the  tree ferns that define so many New Zealand rainforests (top on left, underside on right).

Sports and tree-hugging in one image!  This would seem to make the silver fern a winner across the cultural spectrum.  It might also remind you of another former British colony that tired of its Union Jack, and forged a new identity out of botany:

The Canadian flag was adopted in February 1965, so it just turned 50.  Like the Silver Fern in New Zealand, the maple leaf had been hanging around in Canadian imagery for a while.  So it's not surprising to see the fern so prominent in New Zealand flag ideas.

So how has the debate gone?  Well, the government's earnest committee canvassed the country and came up with these semi-finalists:

It's remarkable how much consensus there was on which images matter: the Southern Cross, a gesture toward the old flag, plus two main expressions of the fern: the frond and the spiral form called the koru.  (The latter, common in Maori imagery, is based on the shape of a frond as it just unfurls.)  

When you look at that field of contenders, does your eye go to the busier ones or the simpler ones?  Mine went to the simplest, the ones with a single idea, not a collision of several, and the ones that looked enduring by virtue of not trying to be sexy.  For that reason, the original silver-fern-on-black still looked right to me.  

But the people who chose the four finalists felt differently:

… at which point, all hell broke loose.  There are many complaints, including that three of the four are too similar to represent a choice, and that #2 is already selling plastic plates:

But the real problems are these:

  • #2 and #4 are both mash-ups, obviously collisions of multiple unresolved ideas.  A mash-up suggests that the country is too divided to revere any single image.  If Canada — a far more diverse country in terms of landscapes and identities — could avoid this mistake, New Zealand certainly can.  (British Columbia is another matter …)
  • Except for #3, they are all over-designed, with an attention to today's graphical fashions instead of any thought about what might stand the test of time.  This is equivalent to saying that they call attention to the designer.

What do you gain, designer of finalist #1, by flipping half of the silver fern image into negative, and making the frond leaflets more rounded so that they no longer resemble the plant?  How is this better than the simple silver fern on black?  Only that a graphic designer obviously designed it, in a way that is supposed to look cool.

But a flag is supposed to outlast its designer, and the design fashions of the moment.  Remember, the Canadian flag was designed in the 1960s.  If their design competition had been seeking something as "contemporary" and "designed" as New Zealand's final four, they might have found inspiration in one of these:

Fortunately, they didn't.  You can't tell, looking at the Canadian flag, that it's an artefact of the 1960s, and that's the whole point.  A flag has to have a sense of timelessness and simplicity, which is why you must reject  any design that calls attention to the cleverness of the designer or relies on design fashions of the moment.   The creativity it requires begins with the willingness to disappear as the creator.  None of the finalists displays this.  

How is this debate relevant to this blog's concerns in public transit?  If you really want to sell public transit, teach people to count on it.  Make it seem solid and enduring, not just sexy and ephemeral. Go for the simple, solid idea that will still make sense — practically and aesthetically — decades from now.  

And this principle extends even beyond graphic design, to debates about whether transit technologies should be chosen for "fun" or reliability.  

Do you notice how insecure companies change their logos and liveries more often than confident ones do?  Do you notice how they use flashy look-at-me images instead of clean and enduring ones?  

Flashiness, fun, and novelty may attract customers, but only simplicity and reliability retains them. Which message do you want to put forth about your transit system, or your country?


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