The future for New Zealand’s flag: 4 scenarios

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New Zealand voted to keep its existing flag one year ago. The flag of New Zealand is still the one that looks very similar to the Australian flag and has the British Union Flag in the upper hoist and the Southern Cross in the lower fly. Now, the flag referendum last year doesn’t mean the debate is over.

The existing NZ flag, adopted in 1902, won the referendum. But it wasn’t because it has no critics or because everyone agrees to never change it. Rather, a sizable portion of the electorate wasn’t happy with the alternative flag designs and voted for status quo in the hope for better options ahead. So, what are the possible scenarios for the NZ flag in years to come?

1. New Zealand keeps the existing flag forever

Despite years of debate and widespread political support for a new flag, the existing flag won the second round of the referendum in March 2016 with 57 % of the votes. The voter turnout was 68 %. However, the whole process and the cost of it all was heavily criticized. Also, public enthusiasm about the issue could have been much higher.

In this scenario, the debate will slowly die out, if nothing else, out of sheer fatigue. For the time being, no-one has the political guts to reopen the debate and spend more money on changing the flag. Those who don’t like the existing flag won’t be able to present a clear alternative. And so, the result is that New Zealand never changes its flag.

2. A less democratic process

The flag debate and the referendums of 2015 and 2016 was a very democratic process. New Zealanders wouldn’t want it any other way. Or would they? The problem with a lengthy, bottom-up process is that it results in hundreds of flag designs, most of which are very far off the mark. Designers have pointed out that inviting people to participate who hasn’t the faintest idea about design, might not lead to the best possible result.

In this scenario, New Zealand has a go at changing the flag once more. But this time the process is much more top-down. Parliament appoints a committee of flag specialists and designers and let them come up with one single alternative flag for people to vote on in a third referendum. Also, Parliament could make the final decision without a referendum.

3. Kyle Lockwood revisited

In the first round of the referendum in November-December 2015, two flag designs made by the same designer got almost the same amount of votes. Kyle Lockwood’s red-white-blue Silver Fern Flag got 42 % of the first preference votes, his black-white-blue Silver Fern Flag got 40 %. In the end Lockwood’s black, white and blue design got 51 % of the two-flag preferred vote and went to the second referendum. It was this design which lost against the existing flag with 43 % of the votes.

Kyle Lockwood combined elements of the existing flag with the Silver Fern, already a popular symbol of New Zealand. With two successful designs in the first round, it’s reasonable to suggest that any viable alternative to the existing flag must be a Lockwood flag. In this scenario Kyle Lockwood is asked to rethink his two top scoring designs and come up with the perfect Silver Fern and Southern Cross flag for New Zealand.

4. Total chaos

None of the five proposed designs which got to the first round of the referendum was able to beat the existing flag in the second round, but each of them was liked by a group of people. Supporters started using these flag designs in front of their houses, on stickers and online leading up to the referendum. Some still do. The risk of letting people campaign for six different national flags for years is that it becomes very difficult to unite around just one flag in the end. The most important purpose of a national flag is that it unites people.

In this scenario, two or three of the flag designs from 2015 are in unofficial use for years to come, causing lots of devisive arguments among New Zealanders and confusion abroad.

Why Fiji Didn’t Change Its Flag

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October 10th is Fiji Day. A new Fijian flag was supposed to have been at the centre of independence day festivities at this year’s Fiji Week. But Fiji won rugby gold at the Olympics in August and that changed everything.

Not only Australia and New Zealand have ongoing flag debates because of the ties to the UK in their national flags. Australians have discussed the removal of the Union Jack from their flag for years, and in New Zealand a two-step referendum was held to replace the current NZ flag with a new one.

Parallel to events in New Zealand it was also announced by the Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, that he wanted Fiji to have a new national flag without the Union Jack in the upper hoist. The country needs a more indigenous and truly Fijian symbol to honour, now and in the future, it was argued.

The current Fijian flag is a light blue version of the British Blue Ensign with the coat of arms of Fiji in the fly. It was adopted as an update of earlier Fijian colonial flags in 1970 at the time of Fiji’s independence from the United Kingdom.

A flag design competition in 2015 resulted in 23 different designs for a new flag. However, the proces was met with staunch resistance from the opposition in Fiji’s parliament. A flag change is not what the country is asking for, rather the flag is highly revered and dear to the people of Fiji, opposition MPs protested in February 2016. Prime Minister Bainimarama refused to let a referendum decide the matter.

In March this year the New Zealand flag referendum was won by the current flag. Prime Minister John Key, who had led the campaign for a new NZ flag, accepted defeat. 2,000 km northeast of New Zealand, the Fijian flag issue was again delayed with no real news about a decision.

Then, on 11 August 2016, Fiji won the men’s rugby sevens competition at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The rugby-crazy island nation erupted with pride and happiness over the 43–7 win against Great Britain! The light blue Fijian flag with its Union Jack was waved vigorously by fans in the Brazilian stadium and for days afterwards in Fiji.

Six days after the Olympic victory for Fiji an announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office read: It has been deeply moving to witness the way Fijians have rallied around the national flag as our rugby sevens team brought home Olympic gold. And it continued: It has been apparent to the Government since February that the flag should not be changed for the foreseeable future.

Frank Bainimarama also said that the cost of a flag change would be better spent on the ongoing recovery of severe tropical cyclone Winston which hit Fiji on 20 February 2016 killing 44 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Response on social media indicates that this is a very popular decision and may indeed put off the flag debate in Fiji for a long time.