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Hotspot – New Zealand

Hotspot – New Zealand
01 May
With the national flag under the spotlight in New Zealand, Klaus Dodds unfurls the debate surrounding one nation’s search for a unifying, collective identity

National flags are part of the essential paraphernalia of modern nationalism. 

In moments of national celebration, such as the recent jubilee festivities, they are worn and waved. And in moments of crisis, such as those currently engulfing Ukraine, the presence of different flags can reveal much about local allegiances. 

In many countries, including the USA, there are strict rules governing when and how the national flag may be displayed. We may not always notice national flags, but their display can, depending on the context, calm, inflame, provoke or reassure. But flags can also change; their design isn’t immutable. So if Scotland votes for independence in September, then the cross of St Andrew will be removed from the Union flag. 

In March, New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, announced that a referendum would be held on the future of that country’s flag in the next three years. 


New Zealand’s flag contains the Southern Cross constellation in the form of four red stars and the Union Jack in the top left corner (above, far left). As in Australia and several other former British colonies, the presence of the Union flag on the national flag is a reminder of the imperial relationship with the UK. 

New Zealand’s national flag was formally established in 1902. Earlier versions include the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand (above, centre right), which was adopted before the country became a crown colony. This flag was selected in 1834 by an assembly of Maori chiefs. The trigger for its introduction was commercial, as British authorities in ports such as Sydney were seizing un-flagged ships originating from New Zealand. 

The United Tribes flag is still flown in New Zealand, offering a visual reminder of the Maori people. In particular, it’s flown every year on Waitangi Day, which falls on 6 February, the day in 1840 on which the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, bringing the nation of New Zealand into existence and formalising its relationship not only with the British Empire but with the Maori. By that time, the Union flag was more prevalent within New Zealand as its commercial and political ties with Britain and Australia strengthened. A decade or so later, the design with which we’re now familiar was in official use. 

In 1973, the NZ Labour Party raised the idea of changing the flag’s design, and in 1979, there were fresh proposals to re-draw the flag with pride of place given to the silver fern, a plant that’s often associated with New Zealand and New Zealanders (and is a symbol of the country’s national sporting teams). In the 1980s, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley suggested a flag that featured the silver fern on a black background (above, far right) but none of these proposals garnered much support.

Prime Minister Key’s referendum announcement is, in part, a recognition of this 40-odd years of debate on the issue. Facing an election in September, he has been on record as noting that the current design is emblematic of a ‘colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed’. In other words, the national flag of 1902 doesn’t sufficiently reflect a contemporary New Zealand in which New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha (those of European descent), co-exist within a complex society composed of Pacific islanders and immigrants from Southeast and East Asia. Key’s preference is for a flag with the silver fern on a black background. 

But other flags hang from New Zealand’s public buildings and are waved by its citizens. The most notable is the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, also known as the Maori flag (above, centre left). The winner of a 1989 competition, the flag references the Maori creation myth, Rangi and Papa, addressing the origins of the Earth. 

After agitation by a Maori advocacy group, the Maori flag is now flown from the Auckland Harbour Bridge and other public buildings on Waitangi Day. It has also featured strongly in public protests, notably in 2004, when Maori took to the streets to oppose the nationalisation of New Zealand’s foreshore and seabed. 

The fate of both flags matters. Even if the referendum leads to a redesign of the current national flag, the mere existence of a Maori flag is an object reminder that New Zealand, under the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi, involves a partnership between the Maori and the Crown. No government, so far, has proposed that the Maori flag would replace the current New Zealand flag, and it shouldn’t be assumed that all New Zealanders are eager to change the national flag. 

So, whatever the result, it’s likely that two flags will remain in circulation. For now, New Zealand’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage has published guidelines on how the Maori and New Zealand flags should be flown together. 

Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

This story was published in the May 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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