Across three weeks in November and December, New Zealanders will go to the polls and collectively pick one design from five available options to become the alternative New Zealand national flag – four original designs, plus one ‘wild card’ later added as a result of public pressure. Another referendum will then take place in March next year, when the population will make a final decision between the current flag and the elected alternative.
‘The final designs provide fascinating insights into how national identity and nationalism is “flagged” in a literal and figurative sense,’ said Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. ‘The New Zealand government, and agencies responsible for New Zealand tourism and exports, will want the winning flag design to be both something memorable and be capable of being marketed around the world. All four [original] finalists pick up on highly evocative symbols associated with the country; the fern, the Southern Cross and the Koru – Maori for “loop” and indicative of a furled fern frond.’
The process of changing the country’s flag began in early 2014, when Prime Minister John Key declared: ‘It’s my belief, and I think one increasingly shared by many New Zealanders, that the design of the New Zealand flag symbolises a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed.’
However, Charles Ashburner, Chief Executive at the Flag Institute, believes the process ‘hasn’t been entirely transparent or democratic’.
‘I’m certainly detecting a sense of disappointment, that out of 10,000 wildly varying designs, they have come down to four almost identical [original] ones – two by the same person,’ he said. ‘John Key said from the very start that he favoured a version of the silver fern, so the fact that they are all based on a silver fern... well, it raises an eyebrow. It is just starting to occur to people that there may have been an opportunity missed.’
This sentiment may be exactly what led to the late inclusion this week of a fifth design, entitled ‘Red Peak’, after a petition of over 50,000 signatures forced Key into accepting it's place on the ballot alongside the original four fern-based designs.
‘Whatever the result’, added Dodds, ‘the competition does provide opportunities to think again about how the British settler colony negotiates its relationship with an increasingly urbanised and cosmopolitan population, comprising Pacific Islanders and Asian communities living alongside Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) and Maori.’
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.