PM expects interest to grow as referendum looms.

The chairman of the Flag Consideration Project panel says despite a low turnout at public meetings on changing the flag, the issue has been hotly debated online.

Panel chairman John Burrows has led most of the roadshow meetings where turnout has been low, with just 10 people attending in Christchurch and 52 in Invercargill.

Scroll down to see the flag designs

Professor Burrows said while that was fewer than hoped for, "remarkable" numbers of people were taking part online. In the three weeks since the process began, about 2300 designs have been submitted to the flag.govt.nz website. While some were humorous, he said the majority were serious attempts and it was almost certain the panel would select the shortlist from those designs.

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Prime Minister John Key did not believe the low turnout at meetings reflected low interest and expected debate to increase when the four alternative designs were known and the first referendum was looming.

"I'd bet my bottom dollar that there would be considerable debate and discussion in New Zealand about whether the flag should change and what the right flag should be."

He expected that to happen in homes and workplaces rather than at public meetings, but said the Government would have been criticised if it had scrimped on consultation.

The deadline for designs is July 16 after which the panel will select a shortlist of four flags to vote on in a referendum in late November.

There had been almost 350,000 visits to the flag.govt.nz website where the designs are on show and 123,000 to the standfor.co.nz website. More than 2000 people had visited information stands. There had also been more than 202,000 visits to the Facebook page in the last week.

"The turnouts have been smaller than ideally we would have liked, but it is another way of getting to people. And we are committed to as many ways of doing that as possible," Professor Burrows said.

The debate over the flag has been bogged down in political arguments about the cost and the order in which the referendums are being held.

Professor Burrows admitted he was getting some flak from those who believed the $26 million process was a waste of money in the wake of polls showing low support for change. He said that was a matter for the Government.

"It is a lot of money and you can't conceal that fact. But that's what democracy costs and this has never happened before in over 100 years and it's not likely to happen again for many decades."

The silver fern and/or Southern Cross feature on most of the submitted designs. Many take inspiration from well-known alternative flag designs by the likes of Kyle Lockwood, Otis Frizzell, Gordon Walters and Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Variations on the United Tribes and tino rangatiratanga flags also feature, as does the kiwi.

Flag it

• Submit a design at

. The deadline is July 16.

• Roadshow meetings over the next week are on the West Coast and in Nelson.

• Have a say at standfor.co.nz