New Zealanders began voting on Thursday in the second stage of a historic referendum on changing their national flag from a design that features the British Union Jack to one based on the native silver fern.
The debate over changing the flag has been going on for more than a decade. The referendum will create history as the Kiwis choose whether to keep their 114-year-old flag, often mistaken for Australia’s flag, or opt for a new one.
Prime Minister John Key has described it as a “once-in-a-generation chance” to ditch Britain’s Union Jack from the national flag. The result will be binding and John Burrows, the head of a panel overseeing the referendum, has said New Zealanders will have to live with their choice far into the future.
“Whatever the decision, this flag will fly for generations to come and we hope all Kiwis exercise their right to vote in this historic decision,” Burrows said.
Around three million ballot papers are being distributed among 4.5 million people for the vote, which is being conducted only by post and will close on March 24.
An earlier referendum to decide the final design of the flag saw only 48% eligible voters taking part, and authorities are hoping for increased engagement in the second.
The design that won popular support in the earlier referendum in December – Silver Fern (in black, white and blue) – was designed by architect Kyle Lockwood. There were four other finalists, including designs featuring a kiwi shooting lasers out of its eyes and hand-drawn sheep out, before the Silver Fern was chosen.
New Zealand’s current flag was adopted in 1902 and features the British Union Jack.
In a Radio New Zealand interview on Monday, Key said that if people did not vote for a change now, “they’ll never get another chance until we become a republic”. He said he did not think that would happen within his lifetime, given the popularity of the British royal family.
Key has single-handedly led the push for change, saying he wants to promote patriotism and that he strongly believes the current flag was “dominated by the Union Jack in a way that we ourselves are no longer dominated by the United Kingdom”.
He is known to be a staunch monarchist, who restored the titles of knights and dames shortly after winning his first election in 2008. But he has stressed a flag change would help reflect New Zealand’s modern, multicultural identity.
Controversies surrounding the new flag
The move to change the flag has been embroiled in several controversies, including criticism of the Silver Fern for being too crude, flashy and “sporty”. Some have pointed out that the NZ$27 million (US $18 million) being spent on the exercise is unnecessary.
Recent polls have indicated that more than 60% of New Zealanders do not want to change the flag and only 30% support the Silver Fern, with the remainder undecided.
Voting is not compulsory, which could benefit backers of the change as they may be more inclined to vote.
After all the votes have been received and processed, the result will be known on March 30. If the vote is for change, there could be a transition period of about 12 months before New Zealand gets a new flag.
(With inputs from agencies)