After a year of heated debate, the public is finally getting its first say on what could be a new national flag.

More than three million voting papers for the first flag referendum will begin arriving in mailboxes today.

Voters will be asked to rank five alternative flags, chosen by a flag referendum panel out of 10,292 designs submitted by Kiwis.

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Word on the streets of Auckland: Should the New Zealand flag be changed?

In the past year, public interest in the flag debate appears to have been rising, with new and old designs flying outside houses, businesses and shops.

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Flag enthusiasts spoken to this week gave a broad range of views.

For many, the most important factor was whether the flag was changed or not. The actual design was less important, even an afterthought.

Acting Prime Minister Bill English yesterday urged people to exercise their right to vote on the flag.

"Very few governments around the world ever ask their citizens for their views on the design of their national flag," he said. "I would encourage everyone who is eligible to vote to have their say to choose our flag."

The most vocal opponents of a flag change, the Returned and Services Association, said people who supported the existing flag had a right to express that on their voting paper.

An Electoral Commission flag spokeswoman yesterday said any papers without a clear first preference would be counted as informal votes. They would have no influence on which alternative flag was chosen, but would be recognised in the turnout.

In March, voters will choose between the winning alternative and the existing flag.

Silver fern 'a real New Zealand thing'

Chris Mullane has 125 flags in his Bayswater home but the one he flies daily is the one he hopes New Zealanders will vote for in the upcoming flag referendum.

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The Vietnam War veteran has flown a flag outside his house since the mid 1970s and has been a fan of Kyle Lockwood's red, white and blue silver fern flag design since he first saw it three years ago.

He loved it so much he had it specially made for him before the flag referendum came on the agenda.

Now that Lockwood's design could potentially be New Zealand's new flag, Mr Mullane is helping the Melbourne-based designer by authorising all information shared about the design, a necessary role for the flag's inclusion in the referendum.

"Otherwise scoundrels could come in and claim something [that's not true]."

He said the design "comfortably expresses where we come from and where we're going".

"The silver fern is a real New Zealand thing. I've been taken on tours to the battlefields in Belgium and France and you see each of those headstones [on Kiwi soldiers' graves] has a silver fern on it. "

The Southern Cross was a nice nod to the past.

Mr Mullane said he had flown the country's flag at home since living in America several decades ago. His time in the States made him question the need for an update of the New Zealand flag.

"People used to come along and say two things: 'Oh, you Aussies are interesting people,' or they'd come up to me and start, 'You Brits', and that made me stop and think, 'Yeah, our flag isn't really all that unique'."

Red Peak is perfect: patriot

Emily Schollum hoisting the Red Peak flag at her home in Eastbourne, Lower Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Emily Schollum hoisting the Red Peak flag at her home in Eastbourne, Lower Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Emily Schollum had a flagpole installed at the front gate of her Eastbourne house after returning from travelling in the United States.

She wanted to replicate the patriotism she witnessed there, she says.

"They're so proud of their country. In New Zealand, we don't fly the flag with the same sort of passion."

And besides, she says, "Wellington is such a windy place and flags are ideal".

Her family owns 50 to 60 flags. They serve as a map of their travels - US, British Columbia, Namibia, and many more.

There are All Blacks and Wellington Hurricanes flags for match days and a smiley face which is hoisted up for her children's birthdays.

Asked to pick a favourite, she chooses the Canadian flag. "It is so recognisable - even my 3-year old son Leo could tell me it stands for Canada".

Ms Schollum, 36, strongly supports a change of national flag. The existing one does not generate pride, she says, and is too similar to Australia's.

"Red Peak is definitely our favourite," she says, pointing to the flag outside her house. "It is everything a flag should be. It's timeless. If it was chosen by the country we will be able to look back in 50 years' time and not think that it was outdated."

'Change to more inclusive flag'

Mark Dinsdale hoisting the Silver Fern flag at his Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
Mark Dinsdale hoisting the Silver Fern flag at his Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

From the front deck of his house in Thorndon, Wellington, Mark Dinsdale can see the national flag flying over the Beehive.

"We need a more-inclusive flag," he says. "It is time for change."

On his own flagpole, he is flying one of the proposed alternatives, the Silver Fern (Black and White) design. It is not his favourite - that honour belongs to Red Peak.

"It is the most innovative flag," he says. "It's also simple - a kid could draw it. It combines the values of the old Union Jack and the Tino Rangitiratanga flag. I think that's a good combination."

Mr Dinsdale would settle for any change from the existing Union Jack and Southern Cross.

"Whatever the New Zealand public thinks is the best - I'm going to fly that one from now."

Mr Dinsdale, an administrator at Karori Golf Club, has about 20 designs which he swaps around according to his mood or events of the day.

The Ukrainian flag goes up "any time the Ruskies do something bad", or the Singaporean flag when his expat friends visit.

He has "flag wars" with a house opposite but admits his neighbour has more flags.

Mr Dinsdale was working in Canada in 1965 when it changed its national flag. There was "bitching and whining" by Canadians but a few years later "no one would go back".

He expects a similar, initial resistance here if the national flag is changed. It will take years, or a landmark moment, for a new design to take on meaning, he says.

"It might be when an Olympian wears it over their shoulders. And then it will be our flag. But it won't be for a while. Until then it will be a usurper of the current flag."

Forget cost, 'do what's right'

For the last six weeks, retired Christchurch woman Karen Whitla has flown Kiwi designer Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) from a makeshift flagpole in her garden. Photo / Kurt Bayer
For the last six weeks, retired Christchurch woman Karen Whitla has flown Kiwi designer Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) from a makeshift flagpole in her garden. Photo / Kurt Bayer

For the past six weeks, retired Christchurch woman Karen Whitla has flown Kiwi designer Kyle Lockwood's Silver Fern (black, white and blue) in her garden.

"It was only $20. I chose it because of its similarity to the Maori flag," she said.

Mrs Whitla, 62, likes what the various colours represent for her: black for the sky, the silver fern shaped like New Zealand's land mass, the blue for the South Pacific, and Southern Cross, which she says represents "the travel we have all done to get here."

"But if the red [also a Lockwood design] flag gets the majority in the first round [of voting], then we'd probably go with that."

She has never considered flying the current flag and if the public decides to keep the status quo, she doubts she ever will.

"A few neighbours have asked if we will be voting for the flag we had in the war ... but as our 11-year-old niece said, 'That's not a strategic argument'," said Mrs Whitla.

"She has been learning about it at school and is disappointed that she can't vote. I am too, it shouldn't be decided by old farts like me. We should let the young people decide, as it's their future.

"People need to forget all the silly things about the $26 million cost [of the referendum ] and any political leanings and just do what's right for this country.

"It's time for us to be more independent, stronger, and have more faith in our abilities."

'Keep the flag, bury me with it'

A Hamilton man wants to be buried with his New Zealand flag.

The retired Air Force and police man, who did not want to be named, said he had "strong feelings" about the flag referendum.

"If they decide to change it then I will take down the flagpole because I've been in the Air Force and been in the police and I've been involved with our flag and saluted it so many times it's not funny.

"Plus there's the fact that my father, my grandfather and my wife's father are all WWI or WWII people so I have a history of being involved with the flag, saluting and all the rest of it."

The man, in his 70s, said he wouldn't buy the new one.

"When they bury me I'll make certain that flag's up there, they can put that in the casket with me. It's of no consequence to anybody else in the sense that nobody would give two hoots but that way it is."

The man said although he liked Prime Minister John Key, he would be better off spending $28 million on anything other than a flag referendum.

"I can't see why Mr Key would go and spend $28 million on a new flag. I'd rather he spend it on CCS [Crippled Children Society] or Alcoholics Anonymous, rather than spend it on a flag referendum.

"However, I'll go along with it because this is the right of everybody to have a say. I personally don't think it will happen."