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A symbol solution

As momentum builds for a new New Zealand flag that will better represent who we are, Sally Blundell looks at how it could all happen.

Getty Images/Listener Illustration

This article was first published on Feb 6, 2014.

"Are we perpetual adolescents hanging on to Mum’s apron strings? Or are we going to say, right, now is the time to declare ourselves to the world?" Designer and design historian Michael Smythe is convinced New Zealand needs to change its national flag as a sign of maturity. “We don’t have to wait to be a republic – plenty of other Commonwealth countries have their own flags – but it is a pragmatic necessity for trade and tourism, for our identity in the world. Unless we deliver our own cultural expression, we won’t have that confidence to go out in the world being ourselves.”

As it is, we risk going out into the world as Australians. The New Zealand and Australian flags are so similar that even Kiwis and Aussies find it hard at times to distinguish them at sporting and other events.

And though Australia has historically hitched its flag debate to the republic issue, there is increasing interest in that country to wipe the Union Flag from its canton. This has been fuelled in part by indignation that the UK appears to be “airbrushing” the role of Anzac troops out of this year’s World War I commemorations in favour of dominions in West Africa, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

What could really fuel a drive to change flags both here and in Australia is the suggestion that the Union flag may change anyway. If Scotland votes for independence from the United Kingdom in this year’s referendum, the blue field and white saltire of the St Andrew’s Cross, underlying the red of the St George’s Cross, may no longer have a place in the Union Jack.

A change would not be legally required: the Queen would still be head of state and, as the flag hangs, Wales is not represented and Ireland is marked by a red saltire, used historically to represent Ireland before the creation of the Irish Free State. But the possibility of change is resurrecting the old Ausflag debate.

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Back in this country, Returned and Services’ Association president Don McIver says although the RSA still opposes changing the flag under which its members served, if there was a referendum “and there was a significant majority [voting for change] and the Government saw it as binding, we would go along with that. We would seek to be involved in those discussions.”

Flag designs by Kyle Lockwood, Justin Westgate and Steve Philp. Photo/Getty Images/Listener Photo Illustration

And dissatisfaction with the current flag is climbing. In 2004, 100,000 people signed a petition launched by Wellington investment banker Lloyd Morrison calling for a referendum on the issue. Last year, a Facebook poll on TV3’s The Vote found 61% of respondents supported a change.

A Listener editorial in early January titled “Just do it” launched a clamour of online discussion and letters to the editor. Newspapers such as the Sunday Star-Times have seized on the issue and are emphatic: “Yes, yes and yes again. It’s time for a new flag.”

Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae and former Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard have thrown their support behind a change, as have Greens co-leader Russel Norman, Mana Party leader Hone Harawira and United Future’s Peter Dunne. Labour Party leader David Cunliffe says although there are more pressing issues facing the country, “I have long considered that as a nation we should begin a conversation on our constitutional arrangements … Updating the flag could be symbolic of that process.”

At last year’s National Party conference in Nelson, John Key said he favoured changing New Zealand’s flag but did not intend taking any action on the matter. “It would never happen with a click of the fingers,” he said. “It has to evolve through the people of New Zealand being engaged in the process.”

When asked about a flag change again last month, he said he would consider changing “if there is a public appetite to progress that”. He said he would consult senior ministers but would not rule out a referendum as part of this year’s general election. “I’d like to see a change,” he told reporters, “but firstly it’s not the single biggest issue that we as a country face.”

Others argue that a new flag will never be the country’s biggest issue, but while interest is growing, now is the time to take these discussions past half-mast.

The big question is how broad these discussions will be. Key says finding a consensus on a new flag will be difficult, and if ministers do back a change, the Government will decide on a design and ask the public to vote yay or nay.

“In simplistic terms, if you are really going to do it, you’d have to say, ‘Here is the New Zealand flag – here’s what we suggest. Vote yes or no, tick the box.’”

But simple it isn’t, and relying on one Government-selected design is unlikely to tick the box for most voters.

“What the new flag should look like needs to be part of a larger conversation,” says Cunliffe, “and to be decided by all New Zealanders, not politicians driven by political expediency.’’

“We need to be clear about the issues,” agrees Te Ao Pritchard, chairwoman of indigenous rights group Te Ata Tino Toa, which successfully pushed for recognition of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag. “What is the problem with the [current] flag? How do people of Aotearoa find one flag to represent them as New Zealanders, to speak of our uniqueness and our diversity? It is important everyone has a say, a platform. It has to be about dialogue.”


That dialogue has been burbling along for 180 years. In 1834, New Zealand’s first national flag, the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, was selected from a choice of three options submitted by the leader of the Church Missionary Society, Henry Williams, to a hui of Ngapuhi chiefs, but only after British Resident James Busby rejected an earlier design because it did not contain the colour red, a sign of rank for Maori.

In 1841, when New Zealand became a separate Crown colony, the United Tribes flag was replaced with the Union flag, the new Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson forcibly removing the previous ensign from the Bay of Islands in an act that provoked the now folkloric protests of Hone Heke and Tarawhaiti.

An editorial in this magazine in early January launched a clamour of discussion.

Our current flag dates back to 1865 when New Zealand naval vessels were asked by the British Government to fly the Blue Ensign, comprising a small Union Jack and a New Zealand badge or seal. In 1869, the first badge, a simple “NZ”, was replaced with the Southern Cross. This was adopted as the New Zealand ensign in 1902 and our national flag proper in 1981.

Nine years later, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, designed for the sesquicentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, was launched. Following a series of public hui in 2009, it was chosen from a selection of four flags as the preferred national Maori flag.

By then, dissatisfaction with the New Zealand flag was growing. Most Commonwealth countries had dropped the Union flag symbol and our design was uncomfortably similar to Australia’s.

Between 1979 and 1992, repeated attempts by MPs, including National MP Allan Highet, Labour’s Russell Marshall and former Minister of Maori Affairs and Mana Motuhake founder Matiu Rata, to win popular support for a change in flag failed.

In 1983, Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser designed his still-popular Koru flag (three years later he came up with his Uluru-Down Under flag for Australia).

In 1989, a design competition run by the Listener attracted nearly 600 entries. Of a shortlist of seven, the current flag was deemed the minority winner with 45.6% of the vote. Most people wanted change, it seemed, but a lack of consensus on an alternative left no clear winners.

In 1998, National Party MP Marie Hasler stepped into the fray, calling for the current flag to be replaced by a silver fern on a black background, a suggestion supported by then Prime Minister Jenny Shipley and the New Zealand Tourism Board. Following Labour’s election in 1999, Hasler continued to promote the fern flag idea. It was a known symbol, albeit associated since 1893 with the black jersey (Hasler had to look for a variation on the fern motif after learning the emblem used by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was patented) and, before that, the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association.


While flag discussions in this country limped along, Canada conducted its now-famous Great Flag Debate with a hiss and a roar. A poll in 1958 found more than 80% wanted a national flag entirely different from that of any other nation and 60% wanted their flag to bear the maple leaf. The Progressive Conservative Government of the time, headed by John Diefenbaker, baulked at the idea, but in 1963 Opposition leader Lester B Pearson made it an election issue, promising a new flag within two years if successful at the polls.

Designer and design historian Michael Smythe with his flag. Photo/David White

It was never going to be easy. His party was voted back into power, but as a minority government. Pearson wanted a flag that embodied tradition but also ditched the Union Jack. The Royal Canadian Legion and Canadian Corps Association wanted to hold on to the Union flag as a sign of Canada’s ties to the UK and the Commonwealth and Diefenbaker remained resolute in his opposition to change.

To push through consensus, Pearson forced members of Parliament to stay over the summer, but still they couldn’t agree. In September 1964, he convened a cross-party committee charged with producing a new flag in six weeks. Of the 3541 entries submitted, 2136 contained maple leaves and 408 contained Union Jacks (389 included beavers).

To a clamour of protest and applause, the winning design, a last-minute entry by historian George Stanley comprising a single red maple leaf on a white background flanked by two red borders, was officially inaugurated as the country’s new national flag on February 15, 1965 – a day still celebrated each year. To appease those opposed to the change, the existing flag with its Union Jack could still be flown on days of Commonwealth significance.

Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser with his suggestion. Photo/NZH

Now, says Canadian-born concert pianist Deidre Irons, the Maple Leaf flag is widely popular. “The maple leaf is a symbol of Canada. You have maple trees, maple syrup, teams called the Maple Leafs. I was there last year on Canada Day and every house had a flag and they wore it with this quiet pride.”

The old flag, she says, with its Union Jack and “incomprehensible crest”, just did not reflect “what Canada really means”.

South Africa worked to an even tighter timeline. In 1993, it ran a public competition for a flag to represent its new post-apartheid era. More than 7000 entries were submitted. All were rejected. A compromise “interim” flag, a rough blend of the old 1928 flag and that of the African National Congress, was adopted just in time for the 1994 election. It remains on the country’s flagpoles to this day.

And still the world fusses over its national symbols. This century, 19 countries have changed or replaced their flags. Burma, Iraq, Argentina, Venezuela, Rwanda, Georgia and Bahrain have all added or subtracted motifs, altered ratios, tweaked colours, modified coats of arms, dusted down old flags or designed new ones, and the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has added 20 new (or returned) flags to the vexillologist’s manual.

Nor are flag changes difficult to enact. In New Zealand, it would require an official sanction from the reigning monarch and a change in legislation. The old flag is not made invalid, but supplanted through preference and public use.

Choosing a new design, however, is nowhere near as straightforward.


What makes a successful flag? Two things, says the University of Canterbury’s Hit Lab acting director Christoph Bartneck: simplicity (learning to draw Mexico’s complex flag is a tortuous process) and uniqueness.

“Because traditionally flags were used in warfare or competition. Romania and Chad, for example, only differ in their tint of blue. Even Australia and New Zealand have been mixed up on occasion.”

Bartneck and his team have been analysing the colour combinations of the flags of 194 sovereign countries. Their research shows the New Zealand flag uses the most common combination of colours – dark blue, red and white. Overall, red, white, dark blue and green make up almost three-quarters of the combined surface area of all flags. (Gambia’s flag, comprising bands of red, blue and green divided by stripes of white, is given a top 90/100 rating in Wellington-born Oxford philosophy lecturer Josh Parson’s flag ratings – New Zealand’s “colonial nonsense” is given a mediocre 55/100.)

Hone Heke shows what he thinks of the Union flag.

Green, says Bartneck, can be associated with poorer countries, while the more white a flag contains, the higher the per capita GDP – although, as he stresses, “there is no causal relationship between colours and a country’s socio-economic status”.

In calculating the popularity of all colour combinations, the researchers found that for a new two-coloured flag, dark blue and red would be the best choice.

And black? Black is the seventh most common colour, occurring in 69 flags including those of Jamaica, Belgium, Germany and the world’s newest country, the Republic of South Sudan – but not as the main colour.

“So in terms of uniqueness, a black and white flag would score very high.”

Smythe agrees. A black and white flag would show “tremendous courage”, he says, but so far that colour combination appears to have been limited to the silver fern on a black background.

This motif already adorns our sports teams and was used by the four New Zealand athletes competing under the flag of New Zealand’s Olympic committee during the official boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In 2003, our America’s Cup team, Team New Zealand, used a silver fern flag for its “Loyal” campaign, and in recent months John Key has reiterated his preference for the silver frond, describing it as “probably the instantly recognisable symbol of New Zealand”.

Many people have “a strong attachment to the silver fern as a symbol of our country”, agrees Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson. “And its support appears to be increasing from the infrequent polls conducted by media.”

But although fauna and flora work well for symbols, says Smythe, few work well on a flag. Already other commentators have compared the fern leaf to a white feather, fish bones or, on a black background, the Jolly Roger.

“So rather than catching up with what Canada did in the 1960s,” says Smythe, “we should do something ahead of what everyone else has done.”


His design draws on the abstracted koru developed by artist Gordon Walters, in which the white defines the black and the black defines the white. “It is the best representation of what a bicultural society could look like. If one area backs off and the other comes to the foreground it is pretty good, but if alongside that the other backs off and the other comes to the foreground you have something that is exciting and dynamic.”

Amato Tohukai Akarana-Rewi and supporters with the flags of the United Tribes of New Zealand and the Tino Rangatiratanga flag. Photo/Brett Phibbs

And easily adaptable. “The [designs] that work best are those that have been able to be applied. You see the Union Jack painted on Minis and bowler hats and the Stars and Stripes on crash helmets and Harley Davidson tanks. Infinite variations on the Gordon Walters theme are possible. The actual flag might be in the golden ratio or the 1:2 ratio. A square version might be a national symbol, a round one might be a button or a cufflink. It is so distinctive that different colours could be applied without losing that connection. It is like an old storyteller picking up a story and refreshing it, adapting it, making it their own.”

Smythe’s latest version is black and a pale grey, alluding to the silver of the silver fern and providing some definition if placed on a white background (unlike the Japanese flag which can, he says, look like a red “sold” sticker on a gallery wall).

Supporters with the United Tribes of NZ flag. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Canterbury designer Bret de Thier’s flag, designed in 1985, draws on the koru form already used by Air New Zealand, sports teams and fashion and graphic designers. “This is the last landmass settled by people, so the unfolding fern represents the fact we are a young, vibrant, new nation.”

His design also includes the red, white and blue of the Union Jack. “We shouldn’t throw that out with the bathwater. The flag represents the two signatories of the Treaty, the founding document that is unique to New Zealand. We have moved on from colonial status, but New Zealand still embraces the fundamentals of the Westminster parliamentary system, the English language and its customs and culture.”

No stars? “One of the reasons for changing the New Zealand flag is to get away from the Australian flag, which has the Southern Cross on it. And in Australia, the Southern Cross is on a lot of company logos – it’s everywhere. It locates us generally in the South Pacific, but it does not define New Zealand the way the koru does. Graphic design is about simple, potent messages. If you put too much in, it becomes a pastiche. Let’s keep it punchy and simple – keep it to the two signatories: the Union Jack with the diagonal red, white and blue and the koru.”

And no black? “Everyone loves black and the All Blacks and the silver fern – that’s fantastic, but let’s keep it for sport.”

Is this where the debate founders, as it has in the past? Or is this where it takes off? Although a referendum this year is a tall order logistically, other countries, even those without the rock-star label to live up to, have shown it can be done – with a hiss and a very inclusive roar.

Silver standard

Kyle Lockwood.

Architectural designer Kyle Lockwood was a student at Massey University, attending a lecture on, yes, flagpoles, when he sketched what was to become one of the most recognisable of the alternative flag designs. In 2004, four years after he drew his draft flag, his proposal for a stylised silver fern leaf and the four stars of the Southern Cross on a red and blue background won a flag competition run by the Hutt News. Since then hundreds of Silver Fern flags and iron-on patches have been sold through the Silver Fern Flag website.

“My father represented New Zealand in underwater hockey and he always wore the silver fern on black – I always thought it would be on the flag one day,” says Lockwood from his home in Australia. “The Union Jack just doesn’t seem right for New Zealand these days.”

Kyle Lockwood's flag design featuring black.

And the colour?

“A growing number of people think the blue should be substituted for black. Back then people were scared of black, but it is more accepted now. From a design point of view, I do like the black, but the majority still seem to support the red and blue.”

Old & New Glory

How the Stars and Stripes evolved.

Painting: Birth Of Our Nation's Flag

It meets all the requirements of simplicity and uniqueness, but the story behind the 50 stars (representing the 50 states of the United States of America) and 13 stripes (representing the 13 colonies that became the Union’s first states) that form the US flag is still debated. According to popular myth, it was created in 1776 to a design by George Washington by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross, as portrayed in Charles Weisgerber’s 1893 painting Birth of Our Nation’s Flag.

The stars and stripes design does bear similarities to the heraldic arms of Washington’s ancestors, but outside affidavits by Ross’s family, presented in 1870 by her grandson William Canby, there is no evidence that Ross had anything to do with the flag before the 1777 resolution declared that “the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation”.

The USA flag.

It was first used as a military ensign flown from forts and ships to mark out American territory. From 1860, when Major Robert Anderson moved the US garrison to Fort Sumter in South Carolina at the start of the Civil War, the flag became a prominent symbol of American nationalism.

Since then its constellation of stars has increased to reflect the growing number of member states. In 1959, after sitting with a 48-star design for 47 years, the imminent entry of Alaska and Hawaii into the US prompted the call for new 49- and 50-star designs. More than 1500 designs were submitted, including one created by 17-year-old Robert Heft, originally submitted the year before for a school project.

The flag, given a B- grade by Heft’s teacher, was accepted by Congress and later adopted by presidential proclamation. Heft’s teacher changed his grade to an A.

See also: Just do it (Editorial)

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