Nz Flag Debate Essay Topic

About three years ago, I came across a group on Facebook called “Change the New Zealand Flag”. This was the first I’d heard of the flag change movement, which has been going since at least the 1980s, if not earlier. Now, in 2015, the referendum will decide which of the Final Four should compete with the old flag, and hoo boy, has it been a wild ride. Not because the designs in and of themselves are actually exciting — oh no, it’s because the antis have come out of the woodwork, and beating away the arguments made by naysayers has become, for some, a constant battle. As a person who is quite honestly pro-flag change, I’m going to outline some of these arguments.

Our great-grandfathers fought for our flag. If we change it, we’ll lose part of our history.

No, they didn’t, and no, we won’t. The New Zealand flag wasn’t actually settled on for quite a long time in our history. From 1835 to 1902 the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand was flown, and in 1902, we adopted the naval ensign the Royal Navy used to distinguish ships bound for or returning from New Zealand. It wasn’t until 1939 that this flag was actually flown in battle — during the ANZAC years the flags flown were the Union Jack or the United Tribes or other symbols of the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps.

What this boils down to is that soldiers past and present did not fight for a flag, they fought for the nation and for the freedom of its people.

If we take the Union Jack off our flag, we will lose our Commonwealth protection.

The types of people who usually say this, in my experience, have usually put it forward as some kind of secret legal knowledge, coupled with conspiracy theories about how John Key wants to shape us into a republic and make himself president. While I enjoy a bit of Key-bashing as much as anyone else who didn’t vote him in, these ideas are ludicrous.

Of the 53 countries and territories in the Commonwealth, more than half have changed their flags and none have been booted from the Commonwealth or had some sinister reptilian-overlord agenda take place. South Africa, Canada and Jamaica’s flags have all become stellar international successes, and of the sovereign nations (not territories) within the Commonwealth, only three still have a Union Jack on their flags: us, Australia and Fiji.

The new flags look like corporate logos more than flags. We’re a country, we don’t need rebranding.

Brands are not just used by big, evil corporations. They are used by not-for-profits, by churches, by charity organisations and, yes, by nations.  Any Olympics opening ceremony or meeting at the United Nations confirms this. You may disagree that the Final Four accurately represent New Zealand, or even that a people and its identity cannot be represented by a piece of cloth, but the fact remains that many people feel our current branding is outdated and doesn’t represent us as a modern nation-state. For myself and many others, the current flag is nothing more than a naval ensign, and doesn’t really stir much in the way of patriotism outside of ANZAC Day services and awkward moments when we’re confused with Australia at international sporting events.

Bringing up Canada again, many of these arguments and grumbles were made about their flag change before it happened. It was likened to the branding of a popular tin of toffees; the maple leaf was “too corporate” or “too much like a sports team” to be something for the whole nation. Now, it’s one of the most proudly sported, and widely recognised, flags on travellers’ backpacks. 

John Key is using this to distract from the shady TPPA. It’s just his pet project.

This complaint is related to the one about losing our Commonwealth status, mainly because it’s usually followed by conspiracy theories and relentless Nat-bashing. Again, this complaint serves only to derail the conversation.

I don’t like how the TPPA is being done in secret, and I don’t like some of the potential implications, but every time I’ve talked to someone involved with economics, like a distinguished professor or someone who actually works in the field, it seems like most people don’t really know what they’re on about. Without making this article about the TPP itself (look, see, it’s derailing!!), I have to point out that 1) policy change isn’t always a sinister cover-up, and 2) this movement has been around for a while. Labour talked about changing the flag when they were in power a while back, and Māori Party MPs have also pushed for change.

It’s so much money that could go elsewhere.

$26 million is a lot of money. But in terms of the government budget? It’s not all that much. In 2015, the government put $1.7 billion into health. The flag money would raise it to $1.726 billion. Not a big difference. While I agree that more money and attention needs to go into things like child poverty, injecting money into that kind of area is not necessarily going to solve all problems.

It’s a distraction from Key’s blunders and mistakes.

Similar to the complaint about this all being a literal “false flag operation” to deflect attention from the TPPA, people have complained that this is a government circus designed to distract us from bigger issues. While there may be truth to this, I would actually point my finger at the media, and ourselves, more than the government. A lot of people are interested in the flag debate, which is why it’s in the news so often. There are also other things going on. One major event or piece of legislation does not preclude others from being legitimate concerns or being processed in parliament. As much of a circus as I think the mainstream media is (and our government), and as much as I dislike Key as well, I don’t think the flag thing is some smokescreen to hide his blunders and eerily sinister pocket-lining. In my opinion, he already weasels his way out of confrontation when reporters ask him the hard questions — he doesn’t need a flag referendum to do that for him.

So what now?

In the last few days, I’ve seen another flag-related Facebook group pop up, this time encouraging people to boycott the Final Four referendum because they don’t like any of the flags chosen by the panel. Personally, I think this shows people don’t really understand the process. Firstly, a non-vote doesn’t count. A better form of activism would be going into the Final Four referendum and using stickers to show which flag you’d rather have. Secondly, if you’d rather keep the old flag, wait until the next referendum when it is pitted against the favourite of the Four. There is no reason to throw your toys and boycott the first referendum. We have our say coming up and we have the right to make our voices heard. You have a vote; use it.

However, the relevance of the third and current flag has been a contentious issue for some time, with the proposition to change to a new design being debated as far back as the 1920's (Mulholland & Tawhai, 2010). This has usually been tied to questioning New Zealand’s relationship to Britain and the Union Jack, and a recognition of the country’s bicultural/multicultural heritage. Canadian politicians, with a flag debate starting in their own country, had asked the New Zealand Government if they had any desire to change their flag. The politicians said in response that “there needed to be a groundswell of public opinion in order for another flag to be flown to represent New Zealand” (Mulholland & Tawhai, 2010, p.239). In the coming decades, many proposed solutions came from a broad spectrum of New Zealanders, with many unsuccessful attempts to bring the debate to the fore of national political discourse.

The most notable attempt to bring about change was 102 years later, when the Trust was founded in 2004 by Lloyd Morrison. The Trust had the aim of starting a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum (CIR) on the subject—a referendum that may be held on any issue if 10% of electors sign a petition which is then presented to Parliament. The Trust launched their petition in 2005 but were unsuccessful in reaching the required number of signatures.

Despite the public having the potential to bring about change through a CIR, “the power to make changes to our symbols of nationhood ultimately rests with politicians” (Katene & Mulholland, 2013, p.13). This rang true in 2014, when the New Zealand Government instigated the New Zealand Flag Consideration Process. As described in the following section, this was without a groundswell of public opinion behind them.


During 2015, the Government met with stiff political and public opposition to the prospect of changing the national flag. From the outset, public opinion on the New Zealand flag leaned overwhelmingly against change. Polls in August 1999, February 2014 and September 2015 had shown support for a new New Zealand flag as low as 19%, 28% and 25% respectively (Moody, 2001; “Three quarters of Kiwis”, 2014; “Most Kiwis don’t want flag change”, 2015). This is a stark contrast to the Canadian public where in 1958, six years prior to their flag change, a poll showed 85.3% wanted to see Canada with a national flag “entirely different from that of any other country” (< odesi >, 1958).

Various arguments have been put forward for not changing the flag. Some suggest that because the national flag has not been changed for many years means it has stood the test of time (Chapman, 2005). Some also argue that the flag is already representative of New Zealand—the Union Jack representing New Zealand's past and existing ties to the United Kingdom, and the Southern Cross to the country’s location in the South Pacific (Round, 2005). Many, including Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association (RSA) president Barry Clark, also argue that the current flag shouldn’t change because generations of New Zealanders who were drafted into the army have fought and died under the Union Jack or the current flag (“Calls for a new flag,” 2015).

In addition to this sentiment, much of the public and political backlash focussed on the sheer cost of the proposed process and the priority given to it over other initiatives. Approximately $26 million needed to be allocated to the process, with a large portion dedicated to referenda costs (English, 2014). Various parties, including the Labour Party, criticised the cost and argued it could be better spent elsewhere (Hunt, 2015).


Despite an overwhelming amount of opposition to the possibility of changing the flag, there were various voices in support of change and eager to go forward with a process to consider it. Supporters of change, ranging from politicians and celebrities to average New Zealanders, have argued a variety of reasons for change (, n.d.). Some argue that the current flag is too similar to the flag of Australia—often leading to moments of confusion (Sweeny, 2004). Some also argue that because it is derived from the United Kingdom’s Blue Ensign, it does not represent the current status of New Zealand as an independent, sovereign nation but instead alludes to the country being a colony of the United Kingdom (“Flags,” 2016). Also related to this argument is that the current flag prioritises British heritage over the indigenous Māori population and other ethnic groups (“Have Your Say,” n.d.).

Regardless of support or opposition to changing the New Zealand national flag, the Government would still move forward with its ambitions. The following chapter elaborates upon the approach of the Government to realise this, and sets the scene for this project.

Figure 2.
Frederick Hundertwasser’s ‘Koru flag’, gifted to New Zealand

Figure 3.
Alternative New Zealand flag design suggestion by Dick Frizzell

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