Story: Flags

New Zealand has had three official flags – the United Tribes’ flag, the Union Jack and the current flag, officially called the New Zealand Ensign. In the 2000s the tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) flag was accepted as a national flag for Māori, and debate continued over whether the country needed a new national flag, with suggestions including koru, kiwi and silver ferns.

Full story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Tino rangatiratanga and New Zealand flags

The Short Story

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New Zealand has had three official flags.

United Tribes’ flag

In the 1830s British Resident James Busby believed a flag would solve shipping problems, unite Māori and encourage collective government. Chiefs met at Waitangi in 1834 and chose a flag, which became known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand.

Union Jack

When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 and New Zealand became a British colony, the Union Jack (the British flag) became New Zealand’s official flag.

New Zealand flag

The current New Zealand flag is based on the British Blue Ensign, a naval flag. New Zealand ships flew versions of the Blue Ensign from 1865. A version with four red stars, symbolising the Southern Cross, became the official flag in 1902.

Māori flags

Māori designed their own flags, often depicting crosses, crescent moons and stars. Flags were used by the Pai Mārire prophetic movement, by resistance leader Te Kooti and by Māori kings and queens.

The tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) flag was designed in 1989, and became a symbol of Māori independence. At first the government refused to fly it on official occasions, but from 2009 it became the national Māori flag.

Other flags

Other flags used in New Zealand include:

  • Queen Elizabeth II’s personal New Zealand flag, which is flown when she visits
  • the governor general’s flag
  • official flags used on ships and aircraft.

Changing the flag

Some people dislike the current flag because it contains the Union Jack, resembles Australia’s flag and has no Māori content. Some new designs have been suggested, including silver ferns, koru (a spiral representing an unfurling fern frond) and kiwi. However, a petition in the 2000s to change the flag did not get enough signatures to force a referendum.

Law and protocol

Anyone can fly the flag at any time. It is flown every weekday on government buildings with flagpoles, and on special official occasions. The flag is flown at half-mast during times of mourning.

It is an offence to damage or destroy the flag with the intention of dishonouring it.


Flags are sometimes a target of protesters. In 1844–45 Hōne Heke cut down the flagpole in Kororāreka (Russell) four times. Other, more recent, Māori protesters have trampled on the flag or shot it. A protester against the war in Afghanistan burnt the flag in 2003. He was prosecuted but his conviction was later overturned.

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How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock. 'Flags', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 18-Mar-13