Today, two days from Waitangi Day, the Herald starts a serious debate about changing the national flag. The familiar flag with its Union Jack dates from an era when New Zealand became a British dominion. We believe an independent nation deserves something more distinctive.

A majority of New Zealand's most eminent citizens say it's time to change the New Zealand flag.

A Herald survey of 18 of the 22 members of the Order of New Zealand - the country's highest honour - has found 11 of them believe it is time for a new flag. Only five oppose a change at this time. One is unsure and one is unwilling to comment.

The survey comes as debate about the flags of both New Zealand and Australia, which still feature Britain's Union Jack, starts again on both sides of the Tasman.

Here, the Tino Rangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty) flag will fly with the national ensign on the Harbour Bridge, at the Prime Minister's official residence in Wellington and on other official buildings on the 170th anniversary this Saturday of the Treaty of Waitangi, as a gesture of reconciliation between the two Treaty partners.

In Australia, former TV journalist Ray Martin launched a push for a new flag just before Australia Day last month, supported by prominent authors, sportspeople and former politicians.

But opinion polls until now have consistently found most of the public in both countries oppose change. The last New Zealand poll, by Nielsen for North & South magazine in 2008, found only 25 per cent support for changing the flag, and 62 per cent opposed.

A Galaxy poll for News Ltd newspapers in Australia last month found only 27 per cent for change and 45 per cent against.

Ironically, the Herald survey of Order of NZ members has found that one of the strongest factors driving their support for a new flag here is the fact that few can tell the Australian and NZ flags apart.

"Our flag is too much like Australia's and most people in the world don't know the difference," said former All Black captain Sir Brian Lochore.

He said New Zealand supporters at international sports events already waved what had become the de facto national flag - the silver fern on a black background. "We should take notice of what people do who support us. The people have been giving us a message about the flag they want."

Former Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizard said: "You ask an American what flag you are flying - either flag - and they will say that's the Australian flag. I don't think we should have a mixed-up identity."

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger said even officials sometimes got the two flags confused. "On the commemoration of the landing in Europe at the end of the Second World War, the Australian High Commissioner in London walked down off the podium and picked up the New Zealand flag and proudly carried it off," he said.

"When I got down, I picked up the Australian one because that was the only one that was left. These things can happen; there is a similarity to them."

Others said that, 63 years after the Statute of Westminster formally made NZ independent in 1947, it was time to drop the Union Jack.

Former Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves said the diversification of both trade and population had taken NZ a long way from "everything the Union Jack represents" since Britain joined the European Community in 1972.

"I think Britain did us a favour," he said. "They realigned themselves, and we had to realign ourselves, and that's good."

Our survey found there was no consensus on what should replace the present flag but the silver fern was the most popular, mentioned favourably by seven of the 11 who support a change.

However, Lady June Blundell, widow of Governor-General Sir Denis, opposed a change "because of the many lives we have lost fighting under the flag".

Former Prime Minister Mike Moore and former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Donald McKinnon both warned against rushing into change without debate on wider constitutional issues and public support. "These things are evolutionary and you have got to take people with you," Sir Don said.

Current Prime Minister John Key said the issue was "not on our agenda" and Opposition leader Phil Goff said he did not believe most New Zealanders supported a change.

Wellington businessman Lloyd Morrison, who in 2005 tried to gather signatures for a citizens-initiated referendum on the issue, said all the arguments raised against a change, such as honouring those who had died fighting under the present flag, were also used in Canada before it swapped the Union Flag for the maple leaf in 1965.

"Today I doubt if you could muster 1 per cent of the Canadian population who would go back to the old flag."


The New Zealand flag is the symbol of the realm, government and the people of New Zealand and although it was adopted in 1902 it hasn't always been the official flag. For 60 years from 1840, the Union Jack was flown on New Zealand flagpoles.

* The royal blue background represents the sea and sky. The stars of the Southern Cross emphasise New Zealand's location in the South Pacific. The Union Jack in the first quarter recognises New Zealand's origins as a British colony and dominion.

* A flag to represent New Zealand was broached in 1830 when a New Zealand trading ship was seized by Sydney customs officials for sailing without a register.

* After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the Union Jack replaced the Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand as the official flag of New Zealand.

* Initial ideas for the current flag design included the seal of New Zealand and the words 'New Zealand' but both were found to be too difficult to work into the design. The four stars of the Southern Cross were also proposed but were rejected as not being exclusive to New Zealand.

* In 1867, the colonial government settled on the abbreviation 'NZ' in red lettering with a white border in the right-hand bottom corner. This was replaced two years later by the earlier suggestion of the Southern Cross, comprised of four red stars with white borders. Officially, the flag with the Southern Cross was for maritime purposes only, but it gradually came to be used on land, even though the Union Jack remained the legal flag of New Zealand.

* The New Zealand Ensign and Code Signals Bill was introduced in 1900 to make the Blue Ensign with the stars of the Southern Cross the legal flag of New Zealand. An amended bill, the New Zealand Ensign Act, was passed by the House in November 1901 and a description of the new official flag was released in June 1902, detailing alterations to the size and positions of the stars.
- Sources: Ministry of Culture and Heritage