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New Zealand’s flag saga is over: The old one stays

In the 1960s, Canadians abandoned a Union Jack-sporting flag for a new design with a nationally distinctive leaf on it. New Zealanders, faced with the same choice in 2016, said no thanks.

New Zealand’s 1902 Blue Ensign won a nationwide referendum Thursday that pitted it against designer Kyle Lockwood’s Silver Fern flag.

Why young New Zealanders tipped the balance to keep their old flag flying Many expected the referendum to be a split between 'old crusteys' wanting a relic of the colonial past and new voters wanting change. Nathan Vanderklippe explains why that didn't happen.

Of the 2.1 million New Zealanders who voted in the referendum, 56.6 per cent supported the old flag compared with 43.2 per cent for the Silver Fern, preliminary results showed. The final results will be announced on March 30 but are not expected to differ significantly.

Prime Minister John Key had been a leading proponent of changing the nation’s flag, which features a Union Jack in its upper-left corner and the stars of the Southern Cross constellation. He said Thursday that he would respect the voters’ decision and his government would not revisit the issue.


Critics said the flag evoked New Zealand’s past as part of the British Empire and too closely resembled Australia’s flag. Proponents such as Mr. Key cited Canada’s 1965 switch from the Red Ensign to the Maple Leaf as a model to follow. Comparisons with Canada gained new life in 2014 when then prime minister Stephen Harper visited New Zealand.

The blue, black and white Silver Fern was one of two designs by Mr. Lockwood featured in the final five contenders for a new flag. New Zealanders had another referendum last year to whittle those five down to one. (Here’s what the four rejected alternatives looked like.)

Ahead of the referendum, Mr. Key said a vote against the Silver Fern would not tarnish his legacy. He also tried to play down suggestions that the 15-month-long referendum process he initiated – which cost about $26-million (N.Z.), or $23-million Canadian – was a personal-legacy-building project.

“I never actually saw it as part of my legacy, one way or the other,” the New Zealand Herald quoted him as saying this week. “I can’t tell you who the Canadian PM was when they changed the flag. Most Canadians probably can’t.” (It was Lester Pearson, by the way. There was a Heritage Minute about it.)


Unlike New Zealand, Canada’s flag change was decided not by voters but by Parliament after a six-month debate. This is what Canada’s de facto flag, the Red Ensign, looked like before that:

And here’s a primer on the contentious history behind Canada’s current flag, which officially turned 50 last year:

A history of Canada’s flag

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MORE READING

Put a fern on it? Navigating New Zealand’s menu of choices for new flag Originally, there were 10,292 possible designs for the New Zealand flag, which a government-appointed panel whittled down to 40 in August. Evan Annett analyzes the motifs that emerged in the design competition.
Ottawa’s embarrassing tribute to the Canadian flag An underwhelming exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History left out much of the complex birth story of the symbolic emblem, Roy MacGregor wrote last February.


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