15 September 2019
The campaign for a new design of the New Zealand flag seeks to get rid of a symbol of country's colonial history. Photo: Wikipedia
The campaign for a new design of the New Zealand flag seeks to get rid of a symbol of country's colonial history. Photo: Wikipedia

Why New Zealanders don’t want a new national flag

New Zealand is calling for a new design of the national flag. Although the campaign is turning into a farce, it probably makes a good case for us to learn more about vexillology.

Last March, Prime Minister John Key broached the idea that the current flag represents the British colonial history, so that it should be redesigned in order to get rid of “the shadow”.

He prefers the new flag design to be based on the pattern of the silver fern, which is a symbol of New Zealand and its famous national rugby team. But Key doesn’t have the final say; it will be up to New Zealand people to decide.

The campaign will go through two referendums. In the first voting, to be held at the end of the year, the people will choose from three to four flag designs, and in the second one, in April next year, they will pick one of two designs.

The government has spent NZ$26 million (US$17.2 million) on the project.

Key set up a cross-party committee and a steering committee to organize related works, encourage people to submit designs, and open a website to tell the history of the New Zealand flag and explain the referendums.

Many former British colonies and Commonwealth countries have already changed their national flags in a bid to move away from their colonial history. Canada, for example, did so in 1964. Nowadays, only New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Tuvalu keep the old flags.

Another reason for New Zealand to redesign its flag is to avoid any confusion with Australia’s national colors. 

Australia also wants to replace its national flag. Harold Scruby, the executive director of AusFlag, a non-profit organization founded in 1979, says some foreigners still ask whether Australia is a part of the United Kingdom after seeing its flag. It seems a new design of the flag is really necessary.

The New Zealand government received more than 800 designs for the new flag in the first 10 days, most of them using local symbols such as the silver fern and the kiwi. An expert from the Flag Institute suggests that one advantage of using these natural features is that they are timeless.

While it seems the government has good reasons to change the national flag, the general public don’t seem to be too excited about the idea. Polls show that more than 70 percent of the people don’t want the flag replaced.

Why? Even though the prime minister hopes to get rid of a symbol of the colonial years and promote local elements, many citizens still have affection for the United Kingdom, which they regard as a key factor in New Zealand’s modernization.

Furthermore, New Zealand’s predominant language and its political system are both inherited from the British. The Veterans Association also suggests the campaign is not necessary, as many veterans think a campaign to replace the flag is disrespectful to those who died for the country.

Since there is no strong support for the campaign, and a lot of people are in fact opposed to it, the flag redesign project will probably fall through.

If countries like Australia and Fiji are going to replace their own national flags, New Zealand may end up the only country keeping the British symbol (other than the United Kingdom, of course).

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal