Why Consider a Change of Flag?

This proposal began with the view that there is no necessity to change our New Zealand flag, but that it was still worthwhile to consider what the flag might be changed to, to be prepared in case the public mood for change increases. A difficulty in the debate is that many New Zealanders feel less than enthusiastic about the current flag, and yet there is no agreement about what they do want. This is also connected with the fact many New Zealanders - especially pakeha (New Zealand European) - have little sense of national culture or identity beyond Sport. Perhaps then, if nothing else, the flag debate gives us a focus through which to consider and celebrate who we are as a nation.

A recent (2007) TV3 pollshowed that public opinion is 52% against even holdinga referendum on changing the flag (versus 43% in favour of a referendum). But this may be partly because proposed designs have not seized the public imagination. Perhaps this is because they have tended to say even less about us than the current flag does. In such a context many people will sensibly argue 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Nevertheless it is clear that many New Zealanders feel do not feel adequately represented by the flag.

The Union Jack on the NZ Flag: What does it still mean to us?

Many of those who wish to retain the Union Jack on the New Zealand Flag are people who have been born in the UK, or have family connections there, and sentimentally wish to retain a symbol of 'home'. Others who support retention include ex-Servicemen and Servicewomen who wish to honour past comrades and military connections. Still others cling to tradition, seeing in the past the best hope for the future.

By contrast many who push to change the flag are pakeha or 'New Zealand European' native-born New Zealanders whose British ancestors came to these shores up to seven generations ago. They may have sentimental links to Britain, and they value a shared history and language. However, they know that despite their ethnic links the UK does not recognise them except as foreigners with less status than, say, Poles, Italians and Bulgarians. As Britain changes to become more and more different to us, they question why our flag should be so dominated by the flag of the United Kingdom. "Shouldn't our flag represent us".

Other New Zealanders; Maori, Pacific Islanders, Asian, African, other European and so forth, do not see any representation of themselves on the flag. They may see the flag as totally British-focussed and not neutral. Exclusive representation of one ethnic group on a flag may be regarded as a slight against other ethnic groups.

It is worth consideringthat at the time of proclamation of the New Zealand Flag in 1902, New Zealanders considered themselves just as British as anyone living in London or Glasgow, and ethnically they overwhelmingly were British.Even our nominal independence day (Dominion Day 26 September 1907) received half-hearted acclamation, and later governments resisted moves to greater independence. This is not the case now.

Also in 1902 the Union Jack was not just the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It was the flag of the whole British Empirea vast assembly of countries, some effectively independent but most being colonies with governors appointed from London. The empire included all of Ireland, the dominions Canada and Australia, the colonies New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, India, Jamaica, British Honduras, British Guyana, and many other lands. These days the Union Flag just doesn't have the same meaning, as it flies over a vastly reduced smattering of islands. The British Empire, asenvisaged on our current flag, has effectively ceased to exist.

In short, we have changed, and themeaning of the Jack has changed, so why do we continue show the Union Jack on our flag when most other members of the Commonwealth have a flag that represents themselves alone?

Should we just drop the Union Jack?

In theory one could simply remove the Union Jack to please those who want change. But there is a problem: if we do so without even a nod in the direction of the old flag then we upset those for whom it is precious. So we simply swap one unhappy section of society for another.

As a case in point The New Zealand Herald (28/9/2007) reported remarks by Prime Minister Helen Clark as a suggestion to 'New Zealandize' the flag by removing the Union Jack and leaving simply the four red-white stars on a blue background. To be fair, she was merely replying to a reporter's question arising from her Dominion Day speech, and it is possible the reporters read more into her comments than she intended. But at any rate the remark generated a great deal of argument, some of it vitriolic, with 113 pages of reader feedback to the Herald and international attention. Interestingly, almost all the discussion was about the absence of the Jack and almost nothing was said about the stars that were kept and what they might represent for us.

A Silver Fern on a Black Flag?

As an alternative symbol, some people have proposed a simple white fern on a black background such as the 'Stylised Silver Fern' used on the www.nzflag.com website, or something more realistic.

Many New Zealanders like this suggestion because of the association with sport - especially with Rugby Union which has its own trademarked black flag for the All Blacks. However many other New Zealanders strongly dislike the black flag, or resent the idea of being identified solely by a sports symbol.

To many people, black suggests death and danger, piracy, anarchy, mystery and intrigue, dark deeds and underhand dealings. In a sports context these qualities may be regarded as a good thing, as evidenced by the way sports teams often adopt aggressive nicknames such as tigers, lions, pumas, panthers, bears, dragons, bulldogs, sharks, barbarians and buccaneers. The combination of black flag and white symbol is particularly evocative of piracy. In a limited international context such as Rugby Union, anyone interested in the sport knows that the All Black team symbol is a Silver Fern. But there have been instances where foreigners who don't know or care about Rugby have mistaken the symbol for a white feather, which is a very odd symbol indeed.

A Maori Flag?

Some propose using a Maori design, e.g. the Tino Rangatiratanga design,or the flag of the Independent Tribes of New Zealand, or some other based on Koru patterns as this would be uniquely New Zealand.

However other citizens feel alienated and ignored by such a design, especially if it is the only symbol. They argue that if we want to make our flag more representative we cannot do it by making it even more racially specific than the current one is perceived to be.

Others have proposed designs based solely on Environmental themes or Unity themes, but these are not unique, nor of overwhelming importance to everyone.


The Star Fern Flag is an attempt to resolve the debate by having a design that is rich in symbolism (see Meanings of the Star Fern Flag) that canbe interpreted in more than one way. It says "You can identify with the flag in one way, and I can identify with the flag another way. You can emphasize the Maori aspects and I can emphasize the Pakeha aspects. You can emphasize Environmental aspects and I can emphasize the People aspects.You can see the shape of these Islands and I can talk about Inclusiveness for all New Zealanders. You can talk about Sport and I can talk about Spirituality. You can think in terms of Branding and I can think in terms of shared Values. You can talk about History and I can talk aboutthe Future. We don't have to think the same way but we can all identify with some aspect of the flag. I will recognise you, and your right to be here as a part of the great variety of people who make up New Zealand, and I expect you to recognise me also, as having a valid opinion about my country."

Next PageSome Special-Purpose Flags

Acknowledgement: TheMaori flags (images by James Dignan, Antonio Martins and Thanh-Tam L) and 'Stylised silver fern' flag (image by Antonio Martins) on this page are from the'Flags of the World' Website.

This page is copyright 2008 Barry McDonald, Albany, New Zealand. All rights reserved.

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