Why is New Zealand considering changing its flag?

Showing the Southern Cross constellation on a blue background with the Union Jack of the United Kingdom in the top left corner, it has been the national emblem since 1902

Flag of New Zealand

But it is has been a divisive issue for Kiwis, where some view it as a proud symbol of their country while others see it as an out-dated image representing a “colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed”.

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These were the words of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key as he announced that a referendum will be held on whether to change the design of the flag. If the campaign for change is successful, it is almost certain that the Union Jack will be removed.

New Zealand did not have a flag until 1834, when British missionary Henry Williams came up with a design – the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. It was adopted on 9 March 1834 at a meeting of Maori chiefs.

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The flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand – flying at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds | © daveelliott

It was the national flag for six years, until the Treaty of Waitangi was signed – a landmark document – and the Union Jack became used. In 1869, the current design was introduced as an ensign on government ships, but amidst a swell of patriotism, following the Second Boer War in 1902, it took its place on the nation’s flagpoles.

That it does not represent the national identity of New Zealand, is a regular criticism. It has no connection to the Maori community, it is too similar to Australia’s emblem and it is a constant reminder of the country’s colonial past.

Supporters say that the tie to Britain should be kept, as it is a strong part of their history. Army veterans argue that generations of Kiwis have died under that flag, so to replace it would be to undermine their sacrifice.

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As the debate continues, designs are being discussed. A possible replacement is the silver fern on a black background. It is already a popular image, in no small part thanks to the national rugby team, the All Blacks.