Blowin’ in the wind: a postscript on New Zealand’s flag referendums


New Zealand recently voted to retain its current flag. Therese Arseneau and Nigel S. Roberts, who examined last year’s first flag plebiscite, now assess aspects of the results of the country’s binding run-off referendum that was held in March.


Three months ago we examined the lead-up to, and the results of, the first of two referendums about New Zealand’s flag. In a postal ballot using optional preferential voting, New Zealanders were asked to choose (from among five options) their preferred alternative flag design. Their choice – the Kyle Lockwood black-white-and-blue silver fern flag – was pitted against the current New Zealand flag in a second binding referendum that was held from 3-24 March and was a postal ballot.


The voting paper for the second referendum on the New Zealand flag (click to enlarge)

We ended our article with a prediction of sorts: as political scientists we would be ‘surprised’ if there were to be a vote for change in the second referendum. This prediction, based on reading public opinion polls rather than tea-leaves, was accurate. The status quo prevailed. Just under 57 per cent voted to keep the current flag, and 43 per cent unsuccessfully opted for change.

Just over 2.1 million people (in a country with a total population of only four-and-a-half million) voted in the referendum – a turnout of almost 68 per cent of eligible electors, which was significantly higher than the 49 per cent turnout in the initial indicative referendum. What is more, the ‘informal’ votes in the second referendum constituted a mere 0.2 per cent, in sharp contrast with the 9.7 per cent informal vote in the first referendum, which – as we suggested in our first article – was predominantly a protest vote by people objecting either to the idea of changing the flag or to the process being used.

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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.

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