Making New Zealanders vote on an alternative national flag before they vote on changing it at all is a biased process, Labour MP Trevor Mallard says.

Mr Mallard says he personally supports a change of flag but he wants the process to be more balanced, transparent and fair.

He has submitted a petition signed by more than 30,000 people asking for a "yes/no" vote to be included in the first part of the two-stage referendum, instead of the second part.

Prime Minister John Key talks about the future of the New Zealand flag.

"The lack of a yes/no vote, and that's what this petition is all about, is designed to bias the result," he told a select committee this morning.

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The makeup of the design panel and the promotional material released this week had also skewed the process towards change, Mr Mallard said.

He recommended a similar approach to the MMP referendum, when people got to vote on whether they wanted a change at the same time as stating a preference for an alternative.

"Whether or not people voted yes or not they had an opportunity to indicate their preference, and then there was a run-off between the winner and the current system.

"My view is that that system could be used for the flag and should be used for the flag."

Mr Mallard said polls had shown most New Zealanders opposed a change, and millions could be saved if a yes or no vote was held first.

"There is potential to save a lot of money, about $13 million on a second referendum. I think there are better ways of spending that money. For example, you could get about 1300 illiterate adults to read. You could get about 250 families a grant which would pay the deposit for them to own their own house."

The Labour MP also felt the timing of the referendum on the 100th anniversary of World War I had divided the country, when it should have unified New Zealanders.

New Zealanders will vote for the best alternative flag design later this year. A second vote will then be held in April, when New Zealanders will choose between the winning design and the current flag.

Barry Clark, the RSA's president, gave a submission on the Flags Referendums Bill, saying nobody had asked for a referendum on the flag.

"I don't see the people of New Zealand protesting in the streets demanding this referendum." He referred to the recent Herald Digipoll survey showing 70 per cent of people supported the current flag. "If any one of your political parties was polling that high, would you see there was a need to go to the polls to ratify your popularity? No. You would see it as overwhelming support of your party."

He said if a referendum was held, the first should assess whether there was a desire to change before holding a second.

Mr Clark said the flag was not only about the past. "Our young veterans of today still serve under that flag and are paying the ultimate sacrifice. They see the flag draped over the coffins of their friends and family who paid the ultimate sacrifice for peace and security of us all. It is hard to overestimate how important this symbol is." He said it also connected New Zealand to "our friends in the the United Kingdom and our mates in Australia."

Mr Clark said the RSA had more than 100,000 members and the vast majority wanted the flag to stay the same.

The RSA was the only organisation allocated a ten minute slot - other submitters were restricted to five minutes. NZ First leader Winston Peters also gave a submission and managed to stretch his to nine minutes. Mr Peters, who is backing the RSA's campaign to keep the flag, was denied the chance to answer questions because his time was up. He accused Justice and Electoral Select Committee chair Jacqui Dean of "gerrymandering" and later said all submitters should be allowed longer. Ms Dean responded that she had to be fair to all the submitters.

Jon Johansson, a politics lecturer at Victoria University, told the committee the natural time to change the flag was as part of a more complete move to a republic. "Designing a process where it is pretty obvious you are trying to split the current majority against the flag, which is a heresthetic, doing that and forcing it with no groundswell support on the whim of one individual - the Prime Minister - is the worst possible way you can try and change one of the symbols of our national identity."

However, David Farrar, a National Party pollster and blogger, said many New Zealanders would want to know what the alternative was before they agreed to change and the current order of the referendums would allow that. It would also allow time for people to get used to the proposed new design. "One versus one is always better than one versus four."

Another submitter, Robert Charles Cameron, laid out three flags on the floor - the current New Zealand flag and one with slightly larger stars beside the Australian flag to argue the two flags would be more easily differentiated if New Zealand's stars were larger. Some submitters said that given New Zealand had adopted its flag before Australia, it should be Australia which changed.

The Justice and Electoral Select Committee's hearings of submissions followed Labour MP Trevor Mallard's presentation on a petition Labour organised which got more than 30,000 signatures and called for the first referendum to ask whether the flag should change.