Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Who Wants to Change the Flag? Results of a National Representative Survey

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Who Wants to Change the Flag? Results of a National Representative Survey

Article excerpt


On 15 October 2014, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced that there would be binding referendums to decide whether or not to change the New Zealand flag (Herald online, 15 Oct 2014). The John Key-led National government was not the first to suggest the possibility of changing the flag - politicians from both sides of the house have periodically raised this for debate at least since the mid 1970's (Pollock, 2014) - but this is the first time that flag change has moved from an interesting topic of debate to a real possibility of happening.

The current New Zealand flag - a British Blue Ensign with four red stars representing the Southern Cross - was first designed and hoisted in 1869, but did not become the official flag of New Zealand until 1902. Prior to that, the United Tribes of New Zealand flag (designed in 1834), and the Union Jack were both in use (Pollock, 2012).

The current New Zealand flag has been criticized on at least three grounds. First, it looks like - and is often confused with - the Australian flag, which is also a Blue Ensign with four red stars representing the Southern Cross, but with six white stars rather than four blue stars. As a recent example of this, organisers of the 2015 Water Polo Junior World Championships welcomed the New Zealand team with an Australian flag (albeit the maritime Red Ensign version) rather than the New Zealand flag (, 17 Aug 2015a).

Second, the flag is seen is as a sign of colonial (British) subservience, with the Union Jack having pride of place. Economist and commentator Gareth Morgan calls the current New Zealand flag "an anachronism" (, 17 Aug 2015b), which "symbolises colonial domination" (Herald online, 15 May 2015), while political commentator Morgan Godfery argues that the flag is "a constant reminder of colonialism" (Herald online, 18 July 2015).

Third, the flag is considered to not represent Maori or the current multicultural population. Mixed views have been expressed regarding the flag's representation of Maori. For example, Morgan Godfery says, "The current flag certainly doesn't represent Maori. If anything, it's quite antagonistic having the Union Jack anchored up there in the left corner" (Herald online, 18 July 2015). Kai Tahu kaumatua, David Ellison, takes issue with the Southern Cross rather than the Union Jack, and argues that "The Southern Cross represents the New Zealand Government, not the New Zealand people... The same politicians who chose our current flag are the same people who confiscated Maori [land] and sold them for votes to settlers" (, 19 Aug 2015). Against this, the Maori Anglican Church supports the current flag, saying it "best reflected the country's journey and sense of history" (, 26 Aug 2015). Te Arawa iwi also highlight the historical significance of the current flag to them: "It is important that you are made aware of the authority granted by Queen Victoria to Te Arawa to fly the Royal Ensign on their marae" (Herald online, 28 Sep 2015). Regarding New Zealand's multicultural population, Gareth Morgan argues that "The descendants of British settlers are only one of the peoples of this land, but all of us are New Zealanders - and we need a flag that acknowledges that and tells our story" (Herald online, 15 May 2015).

The process set in motion by Prime Minister John Key involves two referendums: the first (20 November - 11 December 2015) to choose which of several shortlisted designs will run against the current flag using a preferential voting system; while the 'chosen' flag will run against the current flag in a second referendum, where people vote to either change to the 'chosen' flag or keep the current flag (3-24 March 2016;, accessed 15 Dec 2015). The order of these referendums has been widely criticised, with a poll suggesting nearly 80% support for a "Do you want flag change?" question to be included as part of the first referendum (Herald online, 1 May 2015), and a petition signed by more than 30,000 people asking for the inclusion of such a question was presented to Parliament in May 2015 by Labour MP, Trevor Mallard (Herald online, 7 May 2015). …

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