The flag proposed by NZFlag.com in the 2000s.
Calls for a new New Zealand flag
There have been numerous calls in the last few decades for a new flag to be adopted. People argue that the current flag is too similar to the Australian one and/or that it is no longer appropriate for the Union Jack to so dominate our national flag. These arguments have been articulated by some MPs and since 2004 by NZFlag.com, a trust established with the sole purpose 'of encouraging New Zealanders to change the flag'. On the other side of the debate, the Returned Services’ Association (RSA) has always opposed any change to the flag, arguing that generations of New Zealanders have fought and died under it. In 2015/16 New Zealanders will have two opportunities to vote on the issue.
Aussie PM discomforted
One criticism New Zealanders often make of their flag is that it is too similar to Australia's. On occasion this has also caused embarrassment for Australians. In 1985 Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was greeted by a New Zealand flag while travelling overseas.
The 1970s and 80s
In 1979 the National MP and Minister of Internal Affairs, Allan Highet, ignited debate by suggesting the New Zealand flag should be changed. His proposal gained little traction, as did a call by Labour MP and Minister of Foreign Affairs Russell Marshall in 1988. This was unsurprising - polls taken in 1973 and 1984 suggested that the majority of New Zealanders were opposed to changing their flag. In 1989, a year before commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the NZ Listener magazine took a slightly different approach. It ran a competition asking artists, designers and other New Zealanders to send in their ideas for a new flag. This followed 'Ausflag', a similar competition held in Australia in 1986 in the lead-up to its bicentennial celebrations.
Polls on the flag
Much of the debate over whether there should be a new New Zealand flag is generated by polls conducted by the media. These have consistently suggested that the majority of New Zealanders oppose any change. The results of some of the polls taken:1973 - 75% No to change
1984 - 86% No to change
1999 - 64% Opposed to change
2008 - 62% Leave it alone
2011 - 72% No to change
Nearly 600 entries in the flag competition were narrowed down to seven finalists, including the current New Zealand flag and the United Tribes flag. The New Zealand flag was eventually announced as the winner with a healthy 45.6% of the total vote. Despite this result Gordon Campbell, who ran the competition for the magazine, considered that it had 'exploded myths' about New Zealanders' devotion to the flag. He argued that:
Support for the flag cannot be gauged accurately by asking people what they think of the current design. A better picture emerges when the current flag is placed among other designs, with the invitation to choose between them. Most New Zealanders do want a change; what the Listener competition failed to do was toss up the right design that could tap that underlying yearning for change.
The 1990s and 2000s
Others reignited the flag debate during the 1990s and 2000s. In February 1992 Matiu Rata, a former Minister of Maori Affairs and the founder of Māori political party Mana Motuhake, called for the flag to be redesigned to 're-establish our national identity'. The RSA responded by circulating a petition calling for the retention of the flag. They collected approximately 10,000 signatures from their members, and argued that many more people would sign should the flag come under active threat.
The flag debate was stirred up again in 1998 when National Party MP and Minister of Cultural Affairs Marie Hasler called for the current flag to be replaced with a silver fern on a black background. The Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, tourism operators and others supported this suggestion. The RSA again argued in favour of the existing flag, but said that it would support a change to the flag if it was shown to be 'the will of the people' in a public referendum.
Hasler lost her ministerial post following the 1999 election. She remained in Parliament as a list MP and continued to lobby for the flag to be changed. Learning that the silver fern emblem used by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union had been patented, she began looking for a variation on that theme.
In early 2004 another voice emerged. Wellington businessman Lloyd Morrison formed a trust, NZFlag.com, with the 'sole purpose of encouraging New Zealanders to change the flag'. Hasler was one of the initial trustees. The RSA maintained its stance that it would prefer to keep the existing flag but said it would back a change if this won a public referendum. Some district RSA associations, such as Canterbury, disagreed and voted to oppose any move to alter or change the flag.
Later that year the new trust announced plans for a petition calling for a citizens-initiated referendum at the 2005 election. The aim was, depending on the outcome, to have a second referendum at the 2008 election to decide on the design of the new flag. High-profile figures such as Catherine Tizard, Keith Quinn and Susan Devoy became supporters, a school competition for designs for a new flag was organised, and many volunteers circulated the petition, which obtained 100,000 signatures, not enough to trigger a referendum.
NZFlag.com continues to operate and debate on the flag has come up around Waitangi Day each year. In 2010, following discussion about the national Māori flag, the New Zealand Herald ran a front-page article arguing that it was time to change the New Zealand flag. The newspaper declared that 'a majority of New Zealand's most eminent citizens' agreed, presenting the opinions of political party leaders and the 22 members of the Order of New Zealand. But the party leaders were in fact evenly split (even with the Greens getting two votes), and only half of the Order of New Zealand members backed a change. The other 11 were opposed, unsure, or unwilling or unavailable to comment.
In October 2014 John Key, recently re-elected as Prime Minister, made another unexpected flag-related announcement: a two-stage referendum would be held on the issue. From early 2015 a cross-party committee would seek public input on potential designs for a new flag. A referendum in late 2015 would allow the public to choose a preferred option from those selected by the committee. Then a second referendum in 2016 would decide between this preferred option and the existing New Zealand flag.