Story: Flags

Page 5. Flag law and protocol

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The New Zealand Ensign is the official flag of New Zealand under the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981, which is administered by Manatū Taonga the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

This act governs the use of this and other official flags. The minister for culture and heritage has the power to prescribe when and how the flag should be flown and what the standard sizes, dimensions, proportions and colours should be.

The act outlines two offences with respect to the flag: altering the flag without lawful authority, and using, displaying, damaging or destroying the flag in or within view of a public place with the intention of dishonouring it. Earlier laws did not make damaging or destroying the flag a specific offence.

Flags and protests

In New Zealand, flags and flagpoles have generally been damaged for political reasons, typically related to Māori independence or during periods of war.

Māori independence

The earliest-known instance of flag damage occurred in 1844–45 at Kororāreka (Russell). Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke cut down a flagpole flying the British Union Jack four times. He saw the flag as a symbol of unwanted British authority over Māori. A flagpole at Manukau Heads was cut down during the New Zealand wars in 1863.

During protest action at the Waitangi treaty grounds on Waitangi Day in 1995, Joseph Murphy trampled on a New Zealand flag. He was convicted of offensive behaviour. In 2005 Tūhoe activist Tame Iti shot the flag – reputedly the Australian flag, which he used to stand in for the New Zealand flag – during a Waitangi Tribunal hearing at Tauaarau marae in Bay of Plenty. Iti was convicted of firearms offences, but his conviction was overturned in 2007.


Foreign flags were burned in New Zealand during the First World War (1914–18). German flags hoisted by a patriotic immigrant at his home in Christchurch were torn down and burned in 1914. Croatian immigrants living in Auckland and Northland burned the Austrian and German flags.

The United States flag was burned during anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s. Four protesters were jailed after they blew up the flagpole at the Waitangi treaty grounds in 1969.

Burning the Union Jack

On 8 September 1966 a female student at the University of Canterbury carried a burning Union Jack flag into the forecourt of the new science block, which Governor-General Sir Bernard Fergusson had just arrived to open. The woman’s protest was political – she was objecting to New Zealand’s constitutional ties with the British monarchy. She received a conviction for offensive behaviour under the Police Offences Act 1927.

New Zealand’s participation in the Afghanistan war in the early 2000s prompted more flag-burning. Paul Hopkinson burned the New Zealand and Australian flags at Parliament in 2003. He was the first (and to date only) person prosecuted under the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981. Hopkinson was convicted of dishonouring the flag but this was overturned on appeal.

Peace activists Valerie Morse and Mark Rawnsley burned two New Zealand flags in the grounds of Victoria University’s law school – across the road from the Wellington cenotaph – at dawn on Anzac Day in 2007. Morse was convicted of offensive behaviour under the Summary Offences Act 1981. Her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2011.


In New Zealand, the New Zealand flag is given precedence over all other national flags, and takes the ‘position of honour’ when being flown next to other flags. Royal or vice-regal flags are the exception and take precedence over the New Zealand flag. The position of honour varies depending on how flagpoles are situated.

Flying times

The flag can be flown by anyone at any time. The flag is flown every weekday on government buildings with flagpoles and every day at diplomatic posts abroad.

Mark of respect

Flags on government and public buildings are automatically flown at half mast when certain people die, such as the sovereign, or current and past governors-general and prime ministers. The flag can also be flown at half mast when other major public figures die or a disaster occurs. This happened when yachtsman Sir Peter Blake was killed in 2001, and after the 2010 Pike River mine explosion and the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Flying the flag is particularly encouraged on 10 designated days of national commemoration, such as Anzac Day. The flag is also flown at Parliament when it is opened, the governor-general is sworn in or farewelled, a member of the royal family or other distinguished people are visiting, and on other special occasions by direction of the governor-general or prime minister.

During times of mourning the flag is flown at half mast.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Flags - Flag law and protocol', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

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