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New Zealand flag referendum sparks debate, but little passion

New Zealand has announced results of a referendum that will determine which design will compete against the national flag. According to some observers, the debate over a new flag doesn’t carry much urgency.

The results of New Zealand's flag referendum are in, and the design featuring a silver fern and red stars against a black and blue background is the winner out of five options that faced the country in last week's vote. The "Silver Fern" will now go on to compete against the current flag in a March referendum.

For years, New Zealanders have called for a change, arguing the current flag is too beholden to the United Kingdom - it features the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner - and too similar to Australia's. Prime Minister John Key has been at the forefront of the movement, going so far as to post an online video arguing why his country should adopt a new flag.

A divisive symbol

Key has been derided by some for his costly crusade - by some estimates the referendums will cost voters $17.5 million (15.9 million euros). But for Graham Bartram of the Flag Institute in London, the prime minister's efforts are a clear reflection of changing attitudes in the country – not just about what's on that piece of fabric, but about the country's place in the world, as well as what it means to be a New Zealander.

"The flag is the one thing that sums up an entire country in a single object," the flag expert told DW. "[It's] the embodiment of the country. And that makes it very powerful."
Indeed, debates over the current flag, which was adopted in 1902, have been going on for years. Calls to change it came as early as World War II, and many leaders since then have made similar attempts.

The new choices that voters faced in the flag vote, with the winner bottom right

The new choices that faced voters in the flag vote, with the winner bottom right

But past efforts never got as far as the one today. Bartram believes this is partly because enough time has passed that young people are seriously questioning why their flag has the Union Jack on it.

Alan Tidwell, the director of the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University, echoed Bartram's suggestion. "Symbolically the New Zealand flag harkens back to a colonial past," Tidwell told DW in an email. "While New Zealand has no aspirations to establish a republic, the Union Jack carries old world connotations."

"In addition, the old flag represents for some Maori New Zealanders the symbol of colonial oppression," he added, referring to the indigenous people in the country, many of whom have also called for a change to the flag.

Another factor driving the debate – one that has been repeatedly emphasized by Key himself – is the flag's similarity to the Australian one. In his online video, the prime minister said too often he and his Australian counterpart are photographed in front of the wrong flags. The problem points to one of the most important pieces of advice when designing a flag, according to Bartram: "Be unique."

Apathy or opposition?

John Key mit der alten Flagge für Neuseeland

Prime Minister John Key stands in front of the current national flag

Yet despite the prime minister's vocal support for a new flag, only a little over 48 percent of the country's eligible voters participated in the referendum, according to the electoral commission. This has led some to suggest the majority of New Zealanders don't care which flag is chosen.

"Many Kiwis I talk to are ambivalent on the flag question and see it as a distraction," Tidwell told DW.

Bartram thinks differently, saying it could also be a reflection of the fact that most people want to keep the old flag. After all, he said, why vote for an alternate flag when you don't want one in the first place?

He also pointed out that "Silver Fern" isn't a radical departure from the current flag. Although it does away with the Union Jack, for instance, it still contains the four red stars representing the Southern Cross constellation.

Tidwell went further, predicting "Silver Fern" would lose in the next referendum. He pointed out that it only barely edged out its closest rival, a virtually identical design only with a red background instead of a black one. This suggests to him that most New Zealanders aren't too excited about the new design.

"By analogy many would rather wear a familiar old ugly hat over buying a new hat that they don't like," he told DW. "My money is on the old flag."

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