New Zealand’s flag referendums: the story so far


Next month New Zealanders will vote in a postal referendum to decide whether to retain their current flag or switch to a new flag featuring the silver fern symbol. This is the culmination of a lengthy process that has seen more than 10,000 proposed new designs narrowed down first to five and then, through a preliminary referendum late last year, to just one. Therese Arseneau and Nigel S. Roberts discuss the process so far and look ahead to the upcoming ballot.

There has long been debate about New Zealand’s national flag, considered (by some at least) to be confusing and/or inappropriate. It is very similar to the Australian flag, which also has the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner (or canton) and which also depicts the stars of the Southern Cross on the right-hand half of the flag. New Zealand Prime Ministers have been embarrassed on a number of occasions while on official overseas visits to find themselves standing in front of, or being greeted by, Australian and not New Zealand flags.

NZ Aus flags

The current flags of New Zealand (left) and Australia (right)

A growing number of people have argued for a new flag on the grounds of ‘nationhood’. New Zealand is no longer a British colony but is, rather, a proud and independent nation. Because New Zealand is an increasingly multi-cultural, Pacific nation-state, it is claimed that the Union Jack should no longer be a part of the country’s flag. Many in New Zealand were impressed by Canada’s decision in the 1960s to adopt a distinctive new flag that is now widely recognised and praised around the world.

In the early 1980s, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian artist with significant connections with New Zealand, designed an alternative flag that featured a green koru (which is the Maori word for an unfurled fern), and for a while it gained considerable attention and some support.

Twenty years later, Lloyd Morrison, an entrepreneur and businessman based in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, led a campaign to try to gather signatures on a petition to force the government to hold a citizen’s initiated referendum (CIR) on whether or not the country should adopt a new flag. Morrison’s attempt failed at the first hurdle: despite support from prominent people in a range of fields (such as former Governor-General Dame Cath Tizard, and rugby legend Sir Colin Meads), the petition was unable to attract the support of the ten per cent of the registered electorate required to ensure the matter would be put to a vote.

In 2010 New Zealand’s current Prime Minister, John Key, raised the idea of changing the country’s flag, indicating his preference for one that featured the silver fern. He brought up the idea again in 2014, adding that ‘it was a constitutional issue and required consultation.’ Later that year, John Key and the National Party were returned to office for a third term, and in 2015 legislation was passed authorising the government to hold two referendums on the issue.

Questions about process

 In a departure from the process used in the previous constitutional referendums on the voting system, parliament decided that the first flag referendum would not ask voters the big question – ‘Do you want to change or keep the current flag?’ – but would instead ask voters to choose an alternative flag design. In addition, in another departure from past practice, the New Zealand parliament also decided that this would be done via a preferential vote, which is known in a lot of political science literature as the alternative vote (and is sometimes called either instant run-off or ranked choice voting in the United States). However, unlike the preferential voting electoral system used for Australian House of Representatives elections, it was not mandatory to vote for all the options in order to cast a valid vote. The voting system used for the first flag referendum was thus similar to the system used for Queensland parliamentary elections – namely, optional preferential voting.

The second referendum, parliament decreed, would be a binding run-off election between New Zealand’s current national flag and the alternative flag selected as a result of the votes cast in the first referendum. (In light of the fact that there will be only two options under consideration in the second referendum it will, of course, be a first-past-the-post vote.)

Parliament also legislated for both referendums to be postal ballots. Postal voting was chosen as a result of the government’s desire to keep costs down. That’s an understandable concern: the $NZ27 million budget for the referendum process has been widely criticised, even though – in reality – it’s a comparatively paltry sum (as one journalist noted, it is less than the price of two cappuccinos per person). However, in light of the Prime Minister’s admission that the issue is a constitutional one, holding a postal ballot is – on balance – an unfortunate way of making such an important decision. Voting by mail may be cheap and easy, but it is also open to abuse: the protection and secrecy offered by polling stations is wholly absent; ballots can be filled in and returned without the public scrutiny and security a constitutional vote deserves.

Again, this sets the process used for the flag referendum apart. It is also worth noting that none of the other constitutional referendums held in New Zealand since the end of the Second World War were postal ballots. The 1967 and 1990 referendums about the term of parliament (whether to increase it from three to four years) were not conducted by mail, nor too were either the consultative electoral systems referendums in 1992 and 2011 or the binding 1993 vote on whether or not to adopt a form of proportional representation for parliamentary elections.

The Flag Consideration Panel

A twelve-member Flag Consideration Panel was established, and it issued a call for designs for a potential new flag. Over a period of less than three months in mid-2015 more than ten thousand proposals for a new flag were put forward. By August the panel had reduced them to a long list of 40 flags, and at the beginning of September the panel revealed the four flags it had chosen to be considered in the first referendum.

The panel’s choices were the subject of widespread criticism. Three of the four chosen designs featured a fern flying diagonally across the face of the flag (indeed, two of the three silver fern flags were almost identical proposals by the same designer – they were distinguished only by different colours); two of the designs were black and white (a colour scheme for a flag that was widely debated as a result its adoption by Daesh militants in the Middle East); and the sole koru design was derided by some for resembling a monkey’s tail.

New Zealand already has a second flag, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, which many Maori are agreed represents them. It is flown officially on public buildings and at Government House on Waitangi Day (6 February, New Zealand’s national day). For example, the picture below of both flags flying from the same pole was taken at Government House on Waitangi Day 2012.

The New Zealand and Tino Rangatiratanga flags

The New Zealand and Tino Rangatiratanga flags

Many asked why neither the Tino Rangatiratanga flag nor the Hundertwasser flag was among the short-listed options. The answer in the case of the former was that its designers refused to let it be put forward for consideration and, in the latter, that a version of it was removed from the long list after a copyright dispute – and, anyway, the panel did not seem to want a flag with green as one of its colours.

The resultant outcry over the four flags chosen by the panel – aided by a widespread and skilful social media campaign – saw the New Zealand Parliament rapidly change tack and amend the law in order to permit a fifth flag (called Red Peak and containing neither a fern nor a koru) to be added to the short-listed flags to be considered in the first flag referendum.

The first referendum

Voting papers for the first flag referendum were mailed to the country’s registered electors on Thursday 19 November 2015, and voters had from 20 November until midday on Friday 11 December to return their votes. Voters were urged to put their voting papers in the mail by 8 December so as to be sure that they would reach the returning officer in time to be counted, but – to ensure fairness and transparency – the New Zealand Electoral Commission delayed the final count until 15 December in order to accept voting papers post-marked prior to 11 December but received later.

The place of the flags on the voting paper was chosen randomly, and they are shown flying in order from right to left in the photograph below.


The five shortlisted designs

  • Option A, the flag on the far right, was called Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue);
  • Option B, the flag that’s second from the right, was called Red Peak;
  • Option C, the flag in the middle, was called Koru;
  • Option D, the flag that’s second from the left in the photograph, was called Silver Fern (Black and White); and
  • Option E (on the left) was called Silver Fern (Red, White and Blue).

Below is a copy of the voting paper for the first flag referendum, as well as the instructions that accompanied it (click on the image to enlarge).

First-flag-referendum-voting-paper (1)

The results of the first flag referendum were as follows:

1st count (%) 2nd count (%) 3rd count (%) 4th count (%)
Option A 40.2 40.9 44.8 50.6
Option B 8.8 9.7 10.9 Excluded
Option C 3.8 Excluded
Option D 5.7 7.1 Excluded
Option E 41.6 42.3 44.3 49.4
Valid votes 1,393,615 1,382,258 1,369,550 1,326,256

The turnout in the referendum was 48.8 per cent. It was lower than the 55 per cent turnout in the 1992 consultative referendum on the voting system, comparable in that it too was a referendum held on its own rather than in conjunction with an election. While the turnout was also low by the standards of New Zealand’s parliamentary elections, where turnout lately has been around 77 per cent, it was higher than the turnout in New Zealand’s triennial local body elections, which are also conducted using postal voting and in which the average turnout in recent years has been 45 per cent.

Public opinion polls have consistently found a majority of New Zealanders support keeping the current flag. It is safe to assume that many of these flag-supporters simply did not vote in the first referendum. Some of them did, though: 9.7 per cent of all the votes cast in the first flag referendum were “informal” votes – namely, votes that did not indicate even a first preference for one of the five options under consideration. One senior Labour MP, for example, proudly boasted how she had spoilt her voting paper by returning it with the number 0 in each of the five voting boxes.

Nevertheless, the results of New Zealand’s first flag referendum can be considered a near textbook example of how preferential voting works. The results are also a model of voter rationality.

In the first instance, had the first referendum been conducted using first-past-the-post principles, the flag that won under the alternative vote system may not have (we say ‘may not’, because it is entirely possible that had the poll been a first-past-the-post vote, electors – realising that their preferences would not be transferable – would have voted differently). The flag that won the referendum came from behind to overtake the flag that got the most first-preference votes (namely option E, the red-white-and-blue silver fern). Without exception, in each of the succeeding counts – i.e., the second, third, and fourth iterations of the tally – more preferences flowed to Option A, the black-white-and-blue silver fern, than to Option E.

B-w-b-Silver-Fern-flag (1)

The winner of the first referendum – the black, white and blue silver fern flag

What is more, there was a high degree of logic in the way preferences flowed. When the least popular of the five flag designs – the black-and-white koru – was eliminated, by far and away the largest proportion of its supporters’ preferences, 47.6 per cent of them, went to the other black-and-white flag on the voting paper (namely, Option D, the black-and-white silver fern). Then, when Option D was itself excluded from the count, 56.5 per cent of its preferences went to the sole remaining silver fern with black in its design (namely, Option A, the black-white-and-blue silver fern), which was more than twice as many as the preferences that flowed to Option E. By that stage of the count, Option A had already overtaken Option E as the most preferred of the five flags, and this situation was confirmed in the fourth and final count once Red Peak (Option B) was excluded – the majority of Red Peak’s transferable preferences (54.4 per cent) went to Option A, compared with 45.6 per cent that were cast for Option E.

The second referendum

New Zealand’s second flag referendum will also be a postal vote, and will be held from 3 to 24 March this year. It will pit the black-white-and-blue silver fern flag against the current New Zealand flag. Opponents of the silver fern flag have argued that the silver fern is suitable for sports teams (such as the world champion men’s rugby team, the All Blacks, and the ‘Silver Ferns’ – New Zealand’s women’s national netball team) and commercial products (such as Fernleaf butter), but not as a national symbol. This argument ignores the fact that the silver fern has long been used to represent New Zealand, and is featured on New Zealand headstones in Commonwealth War Graves’ cemeteries and on the tombs of veterans buried in New Zealand. Nevertheless, the claim is widely made that the current flag ‘represents the country which our soldiers fought and died for’, and – in an unusual occurrence for an exceptionally popular and pragmatic Prime Minister – public opinion does not appear to be on his side.

Will New Zealand vote next month to change its flag? ‘The answer, my friend, is’, literally, ‘blowin’ in the wind.’ However, as political scientists, we would be surprised if, on this occasion, there were to be a vote for change in New Zealand.

All of the photos used in this post were taken by Nigel S. Roberts.

About the authors

 Dr Therese Arseneau is a Senior Fellow in Political Science at the University of Canterbury.

 Nigel S. Roberts is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Victoria University of Wellington.

2 thoughts on “New Zealand’s flag referendums: the story so far

  1. Pingback: Blowin’ in the wind: a postscript on New Zealand’s flag referendums | The Constitution Unit Blog

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