Country's relationship with Britain should surely be weighed along with a flag change.

Barely 12 hours after the flag referendum went the way of the familiar, the alternative silver fern design came down from high above the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Its designer, Kyle Lockwood, had earlier remarked that if his entry failed to carry the day then it could be used as a beach towel.

He should not feel disillusioned. More than 915,000 New Zealanders endorsed the Lockwood option in the second ballot, a respectable 43.2 per cent of the final tally.

The status quo option - sticking with the current flag - won the day with a decisive 1.2 million votes, 56.6 per cent of the total.


It was a result opinion surveys had predicted, though it was a little closer than some polls forecast which had support for retaining the flag at two to one.

From the perspective of political stability, the clear result is a far better outcome than a narrow margin either way, which would have served only to prolong what has been a long time coming.

Before he left for overseas, the Prime Minister admitted disappointment with the democratic verdict but accepted the outcome.

Mr Key was closely identified with the campaign for change and indeed kicked off the process with a throwaway remark. The result is a rare personal political defeat but far from a humiliation, despite what his opponents might wish.

This was one of the rare occasions in his premiership when he backed the wrong horse. A new flag will not be among the achievements of his time in office, but equally it is unlikely that the electorate's judgment will carry over into the party political arena.

Close analysis of voting remains to be completed, but it is likely that most voters ticked their ballot paper on the basis of the illustrated flags, and not because of some wider political matters.

While there was rhetoric during the flag campaign that the $26 million exercise was an extravagant vanity exercise, the scale of the turnout - 67 per cent of the electorate - and the low number of spoiled returns suggests New Zealanders engaged with the task at hand.

Where to from here? Mr Key suggested the flag ballot was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

There is no reason why it ought to be. There is every reason, though, that the process adopted this time around should be carefully reassessed.

In retrospect it seems a mistake to weigh up the idea of changing the nation's flag without consideration of constitutional change.

A new national flag would almost certainly eliminate the Union Jack from its fabric, which in turn raises more searching questions about New Zealand's relationship with Britain and the place of the monarch as head of state.

Had the referendum gone in favour of the Lockwood flag then we would have been left with an unsatisfactory halfway house, with a national symbol asserting independence while retaining a titular honours system.

More than one politician has suggested that the time for a constitutional conversation is when the Queen, who is 89, either dies or relinquishes her role to Prince Charles, the next in line to the throne.

The flag debate barely stirred any republican passions. That may not be the case after the next coronation.

When the future of the current flag is once more up for discussion, we ought to put everything on the table.

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