Page 4 – Changing the flag
The New Zealand Ensign adopted in 1902 remains New Zealand’s official flag. However, calls to change the flag have been made since the 1960s.
Reasons for change
The following arguments underlie most calls for change:
- The presence of the Union Jack on the flag belies New Zealand’s status as an independent sovereign nation.
- The current flag does not convey New Zealand’s unique Māori heritage or acknowledge its multi-cultural society.
- It is too similar to Australia’s flag.
In 1990 National Party MP Graeme Lee introduced a bill to amend the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981. Lee sought to provide more protection for the current flag by requiring at least 75% of MPs (rather than a simple parliamentary majority) or a majority of voters in a national referendum to vote for change. During one debate Lee expressed the pride he felt on seeing the New Zealand flag hoisted at Auckland airport during the Commonwealth Games. Labour MP and former prime minister David Lange joked: ‘It's a traffic hazard; tears are streaming from people's eyes and they're hitting buses.’1 The bill was defeated. Lee tried again – unsuccessfully – in 1994.
Supporting the flag
Since the 1970s news-media opinion polls have found a clear majority of respondents oppose changing the flag. Those who support the current flag argue that it reflects New Zealand’s historical ties with Britain and is of particular value because it has been fought under during periods of war. The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) has led the defence of the New Zealand flag since the 1970s, though the association stated in 2004 that it would accept a new flag if this was the outcome of a public referendum.
New flag proposals
New flag designs have been traced back to the 1960s. In 1967 United States-born Clark Titman publicised his design for a new flag. He retained the colours of the New Zealand flag and the Southern Cross but omitted the Union Jack.
There’s something missing
Republican and left-wing writer Bruce Jesson published The Republican magazine from 1974 to 1995. A version of the New Zealand flag – without the Union Jack – was situated in the top left corner of the cover. Jesson saw the flag as a symbol of New Zealand’s subordination to foreign powers.
Minister of Internal Affairs Allan Highet proposed substituting a silver fern for the Southern Cross in 1979. New flag designs were increasingly presented by members of the public in the 1980s and 1990s. Many were prompted by design competitions run by the Press (1984) and the New Zealand Listener (1990). The best-known new flag from this period is architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s green koru (spiral representing an unfurling fern frond), which he designed in 1983, three years before becoming a New Zealand citizen.
In 1998 Minister of Cultural Affairs Marie Hasler proposed a new flag – a silver fern on a black background. It garnered much publicity, and the support of Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, but the National government was voted out of office in 1999.
The charitable trust NZflag.com was formed in 2004 to encourage New Zealanders to support a new flag. The trust organised a nationwide petition with the aim of getting enough signatures (at least 270,000) to force a citizens-initiated referendum on changing the flag. Despite a publicity campaign and the support of prominent New Zealanders, the petition only gathered around 100,000 signatures.