Why New Zealand spent $17 million to change its flag, then didn't

A referendum on the New Zealand flag sparked a national discussion of colonialism and national identity.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Tomas Walsh of New Zealand holds his country's flag as he celebrates after winning the gold medal in the shot put during the IAAF World Indoor Athletics Championships in Portland, Oregon March 18, 2016.

The people of New Zealand have voted to keep their national flag, in the culmination of a process that began almost a year ago and cost more than $17 million (NZ$26 million).

But the referendum, promised by Prime Minister John Key’s National Party when they came to power in 2014, was about more than just a flag: it sparked discussion of colonialism and national identity.

In rejecting change, some argue it makes a vote on becoming a republic more likely, others that it represents respect for those who fought and died under the current flag. And then there are some who say the alternative design was simply uninspiring.

“There is not a groundswell of desire in New Zealand to change the flag,” says Alan Tidwell, Director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University, in an email interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“The drive came out of Prime Minister Key's office. He has expressed his interest in seeing the flag change.”

The prime minister laid out two main reasons for change: to avoid confusion with Australia’s flag, which is remarkably similar, and to banish colonial associations, represented in his eyes by the British Union Jack in the corner of the flag.

Yet there are some who, as well as lamenting the huge cost of the initiative, claim Mr. Key “was merely interested in leaving a lasting legacy.”

But whatever his motives, the prime minister, who is a monarchist, accepted the people’s verdict, tweeting “New Zealand has voted to retain our current flag. I encourage all NZers to use it, embrace it and, more importantly, be proud of it.”

Voter turnout was 67.3 percent, with more than 2.1 million New Zealanders having their say. Of that, 56.6 percent wanted to keep the current flag, and 43.2 percent supported the new one.

“I think the Prime Minister is right that the flag represents colonialism, but apparently that is not entirely shared by his constituents,” Dr. Tidwell tells the Monitor. “In talking with New Zealanders many have expressed a desire that the government focus more on substantive issues, rather than symbolic ones.”

Indeed, while Key put forward the yoke of history as a reason for change, many seemed to see the past in a very different light – something to be proud of, something that makes New Zealand what it is today, and something represented by the flag in its current form.

The Returned and Services Association, which was formed in 1916 to support service men and women and their families, was one of the most vocal opponents of change. Its president, BJ Clark, described the decision to keep the current flag as “an inspiring, strong show of democracy in action," according to the New Zealand Herald.

"New Zealand service personnel sign up for a number of reasons, but one of the foremost of these is to safeguard the continuing of our way of life," Mr. Clark said. "It's heartening so many Kiwis have exercised their right to have their say, and keep the flag. The people have spoken."

There are some, however, that see this only as a precursor to a wider debate about whether New Zealand should become a republic – even saying that this vote makes such a conversation more urgent, as it missed an opportunity to divorce the country from an emblem of colonial domination.

Tidwell of Georgetown disagrees.

“The campaign to change the flag is not accompanied by a desire to become a republic. There is no move to dump the monarch and the Queen of New Zealand.  In fact, New Zealand recently switched back to the old honors system, conferring titles such as 'Sir'.”

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