The New Zealand Flag Referendum

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 18th August 2015

For many years the New Zealand flag has been the subject of much debate. Adopted when New Zealand was still a part of the British Empire, their national standard has the British flag within it. On top of that, it closely resembles the Australian flag – which is also partly made up of the British flag.

New Zealand is not the first ex-British colony to launch a national debate on its flag. The Great Canadian Flag Debate of the mid-1960s was a divisive affair involving 35 public meetings and many entries from the public, and was eventually resolved in favour of the iconic Maple Leaf through parliamentary manoeuvrings by the incumbent Liberal Party.

New Zealand’s process, however, has a much more citizen-led flavour. Members of the public submitted designs (including the Laser Kiwi flag) and last week the Flag Consideration Panel announced a longlist of 40 designs. Online engagement has been used to strong effect. The panel claim that almost 1.2m people have been reached by Facebook and that there have been more than 850,000 visits to their website. Given that New Zealand has a population of just 4.5 million, these are impressive numbers.

Even more pleasingly, the longlist will be whittled down to four flags by the panel, which will then go to a referendum in late November/early December. This referendum will ask voters to rank the four shortlisted designs, with the winner decided using the Alternative Vote. This will then go to a run-off against the current New Zealand flag in March.

The separate ballot for alternative flags using AV will allow for a full debate amongst all New Zealand citizens – regardless of whether they support or oppose changing the flag – as to which flag they most support. The AV nature of the vote will allow for a consensual choice to emerge, and the run-off will allow for a clear debate between the two options following a more open process. The engagement provided by the outreach online will also add to the conversation.

A national flag is often a crucial component of people’s identification with their country. Hence it is vital that when a flag is changed, the change is not done in a way that is arbitrary, and instead has a large amount of consensus.

As New Zealand shows, modern technology, and ranked balloting can promote a consensual debate. It’s something which, as democrats, we should all aspire to.

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