New Zealand flag
The existing New Zealand flag was voted to stayGetty

No one in New Zealand will have been surprised that a landmark referendum on changing the country's flag has resulted in the status quo prevailing. The odds were stacked against change from the very start.

Prime Minister John Key's initiating and championing of the referendum process politicised the decision along party lines. The right-of-centre leader openly advocated getting rid of the current flag, and then campaigned in favour of the alternative design. This was a major problem, as it generated opposition to change from many on the political left – who would otherwise be more open to a change of flag. This, in turn, created a cross-spectrum coalition of conservatives and liberals that was always going to be hard to overcome.

The NZ$26 million spent on the referendum process was widely criticised, especially as many saw it as a vanity project for the prime minister. If, instead, it had been tied to significant constitutional change, such as becoming a republic, then it would have had more legitimacy. Instead, John Key raised the idea out of the blue in the lead up to the 2014 general election, making it easily characterised as a shallow attempt to distract voters from genuine election issues.

Key's self-description as a monarchist and his re-introduction of the old honours system also somewhat undermines his credibility as someone wanting to cut the colonial apron strings. Key has certainly suffered a political setback with the rejection of his initiative, but a sideshow is just that and there is no evidence to date that the loss will result in wider political fallout for him.

Many who wanted change simply didn't like the alternative, which was criticised as shallow 'corporate' design - better suited to wrapping a pound of butter, or adorning a beach towel, than being displayed with pride atop a flagpole. It did appear to be a cut and paste compromise – offering to replace the colonial Union Jack in the corner with a fern, a popular symbol targeted at those wanting change, but left the rest unchanged to appeal to traditionalists. In a political and marketing sense it probably made sense. As is often the way with design projects, the result of this logic ended up very unappealing to many who genuinely wanted something new.

New Zealand flag designs
The five flags that New Zealanders voted for in the referendum.Govt.nz

Many were unhappy with the options for change that the appointed flag-change panel came up with for the first referendum last year, especially as they included two designs by the same person that were almost identical (above far left and far right). Some obvious and very popular options were not put to the vote. The white silver fern on a black background has been widely used for many years, notably by the All Blacks. While the current flag is seen on flagpoles, the silver fern has been far more dominant over the years in the hands of New Zealanders and on their clothing.

There was little discussion about the British Union Jack itself, which was somewhat surprising as the final choice essentially came down to replacing it on the corner with the silver fern. It would be a mistake to read the result as any indication of feelings towards the "mother country". The relationship to Australia (because of confusion between our flags) was much more widely
debated.

There were also very few Maori inspired design options. People all over the world have embraced the uniqueness and strength of Maori design to literally have it tattooed on their bodies and yet that obvious expression of New Zealand's uniqueness was poorly represented in the whole process. In the end, the referendum result was closer than many polls suggested – 57% for the status quo versus 43% for change. There is little doubt that many who voted against change this time (for the reasons above) actually do want a new flag, so the close vote indicates there probably is a majority for change.

The real question is how long it will be before the subject comes up again. A future process that makes sense as part of another significant change (and engenders real debate on identity), that is de-politicised as much as possible, involves people with actual design skills from the start and doesn't exclude the obvious use of the colour black is very likely to succeed.


Dr Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand