Voting papers for the second flag referendum get sent out tomorrow. The ballot sheets offer New Zealanders a rare democratic opportunity - the chance to determine the country's flag.

Opinion surveys indicate that of those enrolled, a big majority will be casting a vote. The same surveys suggest that the existing flag will still be New Zealand's flag when the official count is declared on March 30.


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This outcome, while not unexpected, is a lost opportunity. At the start of the process last year the prospect of a new flag which could speak distinctly of New Zealand - not an ensign which got confused for Australia's or one which incorporated another country's design - was appealing.

The idea that people could vote to choose the flag they wanted was refreshing, rather than have a divided Parliament impose a design which did embrace the nation.

But the process which produced the final Kyle Lockwood-designed alternative - the black, white and blue silver fern - was at best unsatisfactory.

The inclusion of the Red Peak design in the first referendum after an energetic social media campaign undermined the work of the Flag Consideration Panel, though it did add a real alternative to the initial round of voting.

But despite its best efforts, and supported by the $26 million budget, the panel failed to spark much enthusiasm for the project, illustrated by its struggle in some places to gather more than a desultory muster to its meetings.

Residents in Massey explain their views on the New Zealand Flag change.

This is not to blame the panel, for community engagement in New Zealand on issues which do not directly effect the hip pocket can be a hard sell.

If the surveys are correct, and the country resists the call for change - despite 11th-hour appeals from Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and other high-profile personalities featured in a energetic campaign - the result will be one of the few occasions that Prime Minister John Key has failed to carry an issue.

Usually astute at reading political currents, Mr Key's antennae deserted him on the flag.

The debate over the past year has shown that people have an attachment to national symbols. Few issues have generated so many letters to this newspaper, from both sides of the fence. The initial suggestion sparked both outrage and support, though probably not in equal measure.

The process by which flags were long-listed saw more opinions raised. Still more correspondence flooded in when the short-list emerged.

And, when it came down to Kyle Lockwood's design, the communication lifted to yet another high. Arguments have raged over process, colour, design and, of course, cost. Passions were roused in a way usually limited to rugby tests.

It was probably here that Mr Key fell down. New Zealanders seemed unwilling to relinquish their connection to the existing flag because they were not persuaded that a better and more satisfying replacement was on offer.

The option put before them does not appear to be sufficiently inspiring to extinguish their ties to the existing flag. New Zealand is one of a handful of Commonwealth countries with a Union Jack in its flag. It is likely to remain there for a few years yet.

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