Story: Flags

Page 4. Changing the flag

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The New Zealand Ensign adopted in 1902 remains New Zealand’s official flag. However, calls to change the flag have been made since the 1960s. An alternative flag was rejected in a national referendum in 2016.

Reasons for change

The following arguments have underlain most calls for change:

  • The Union Jack on the flag belies New Zealand’s status as an independent nation.
  • The current flag does not convey New Zealand’s Māori heritage or acknowledge its multi-cultural society.
  • It is too similar to Australia’s flag.

Flag defender

In 1990 National Party MP Graeme Lee introduced a bill to amend the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981. Lee sought to provide more protection for the current flag by requiring at least 75% of MPs (rather than a simple parliamentary majority) or a majority of voters in a national referendum to vote for change. During one debate Lee expressed the pride he felt on seeing the New Zealand flag hoisted at Auckland airport during the Commonwealth Games. Labour MP and former prime minister David Lange joked: ‘It's a traffic hazard; tears are streaming from people's eyes and they're hitting buses.’1 The bill was defeated. Lee tried again – unsuccessfully – in 1994.

Supporting the flag

Since the 1970s opinion polls have found a clear majority opposed to changing the flag. Supporters of the current flag argue that it reflects New Zealand’s historical ties with Britain and is of particular value because - they claim - it has been fought under in wartime. The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) has led the defence of the New Zealand flag, though the association has stated that it would accept a new flag if this was the outcome of a public referendum.

New flag proposals

In 1967, United States-born Clark Titman publicised his design for a new flag. This retained the colours of the New Zealand flag and the Southern Cross but omitted the Union Jack.

There’s something missing

Republican and left-wing writer Bruce Jesson published The Republican magazine from 1974 to 1995. A version of the New Zealand flag – without the Union Jack – was situated in the top left corner of the cover. Jesson saw the flag as a symbol of New Zealand’s subordination to foreign powers.

In 1979, Minister of Internal Affairs Allan Highet proposed substituting a silver fern for the Southern Cross. New flag designs were increasingly presented by members of the public in the 1980s and 1990s. Many were prompted by design competitions run by the Press (1984) and the New Zealand Listener (1990). The best-known new flag from this period is architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s green koru (spiral representing an unfurling fern frond), which he designed in 1983.

In 1998 Minister of Cultural Affairs Marie Hasler proposed a new flag – a silver fern on a black background. This garnered much publicity, and the support of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, but the National government was voted out of office in 1999.

Flag referendums

The charitable trust was formed in 2004 to encourage New Zealanders to support a new flag. The trust organised a nationwide petition, but this did not get enough signatures to force a citizens-initiated referendum on changing the flag.

In 2014 Prime Minister John Key revived proposals for a new flag. A Flag Consideration Panel chose a shortlist of four alternative designs, to which a fifth was added after a social media campaign. A referendum in November 2015 chose Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) design to run off against the current flag. In March 2016, 56.6% of the New Zealanders who voted in a second referendum opted for the current flag in preference to the alternative.

Read more about the Flag referenda on NZHistory.

  1. Hansard, 14 March 1990, (last accessed 18 August 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Flags - Changing the flag', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2016