Just over four years have passed since a major Herald campaign advocated a change in the national flag, saying the present one indicated New Zealanders were stuck in a nostalgia centred on their colonial heritage and embrace of British values.

More years still will pass before a final decision is made under the timetable outlined this week by the Prime Minister. Those wanting a more urgent approach involving a referendum at this year's general election are bound to be disappointed. Nonetheless, John Key has opted for an appropriate schedule and framework for a decision that is too fundamental to this country's identity to be rushed.

New Zealanders will vote on whether New Zealand gets a new flag during the next Parliamentary term. Mr Key said in a speech at Victoria University that the design of the current flag symbolised a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed.

As much has been confirmed by the support for his plan by all the main parties. This ensures the issue will be settled before the 2017 election, and will not become ensnared in politicking. Whatever the makeup of the government after the September 20 election, a cross-party committee of MPs will be established to come up with the best option for a referendum process. Public input in terms of a proper debate and the submitting of designs for a new flag will be the purview of a steering group of eminent New Zealanders.

Mr Key has suggested that a two-stage referendum would create more confidence in the final result. First, there would be a vote for the best alternative flag from three or four options. Then, the winning design would run off against the existing flag.


This is a much superior process to that proposed by the Prime Minister when he first ventured into the area in late January. Then, he suggested senior ministers would select an alternative design. After more than a month of pondering, he has come up with a proposal that, in its thoroughness, should enjoy the support of all but the most fervent supporters of the present flag.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for withstanding the noisy resistance sparked by his initial foray. That is noteworthy because until now the Government has shown little interest in promoting issues of national identity. His predecessor, Helen Clark, was far more active, not least in introducing a new set of honours. But Mr Key is clearly determined to make his impact through a new flag. As much was emphasised during Tuesday's address at Victoria University when he characterised the present one as symbolising "a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed".

That is not to say that the Prime Minister is on the right track with his preference for a new flag - a silver fern on a black background, as displayed at many sporting events. That is tied too closely to the New Zealand Rugby Union. Mr Key may, however, be right that the silver fern, the symbol that adorns the gravestones of New Zealanders in Commonwealth War Graves overseas, will be a feature of a new flag. But so, too, may the kiwi, variations on the koru design or the Southern Cross.

The sacrifice of the service personnel interred in those graves will be a major argument raised by the opponents of change. They will talk of how these men and women fought and died for the present flag. Anything other than the Union Jack and Southern Cross would dishonour them. But whatever motivated these people to enlist and to fight bravely, it was not something as one-dimensional as a flag. Nor, as Mr Key suggested, should being respectful of our history lock us permanently in the past.

This country will have a new, more distinctive flag at some stage. The question is not if, but when. The Prime Minister has outlined a process that should get New Zealand there in good time and after a good deal of consideration and consultation.