The judges weighed 10,292 options — including a flightless kiwi bird firing lasers from its eyes — and the country spent two years thinking about it. But in the end, New Zealanders chose decisively to keep their century-old flag, a blue ensign with Britain’s Union Jack in the upper left corner and the four stars of the Southern Cross in red on the right.
Preliminary results of a nationwide mail-in vote, which pitted the incumbent against a flag known as the Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue)— showed on Thursday that 56.6 percent had voted to keep the existing flag flying, despite the assertion by Prime Minister John Key that it symbolized a colonial era whose time had passed.
“Naturally, I’m a little bit disappointed,” Mr. Key said at a news conference after the result was announced. “I always knew it was going to be a very tough thing to get more than 50 percent of people to vote for change. But the result was much, much closer than people predicted.” A recent poll had found that two-thirds of New Zealanders wanted to keep the existing flag.
Thousands of submitted designs — including the laser-equipped kiwi bird and a woolly sheep with stars for eyes, among less unconventional entries — were reduced to five finalists last year by a panel of 12 judges. Four of the five featured variations on a fern, a plant of symbolic importance in the native Maori culture (and the logo of the national rugby team).
In December, Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) won the first nationwide postal referendum and the support of Mr. Key, who had floated the idea of a new flag in an election campaign speech in March 2014. At the time, Mr. Key said that if his National Party won the elections in September (as it did), he would hold a referendum on the flag.
But the referendum in December asked people to choose among five finalists — not whether they wanted a new flag. Mr. Key said that decision was best made in a vote putting the existing flag against one challenger.
Those opposed to changing the flag argued that soldiers had died fighting for it and that it represented history and tradition. Winston Peters, a lawmaker who leads the New Zealand First Party, noted that recent polling had found the strongest support for the existing flag among people younger than 29.
“The result shows our history is important, and young people think it is worth defending,” Mr. Peters said. He added that the cost of the referendum, about $17 million, could not be justified.
Georgia Murdoch, a 26-year-old from Sumner, a suburb of Christchurch, said that she had had mixed feelings about the referendum, though she ultimately voted to change the flag.
“I voted for it because I liked the silver fern,” she said. “But I was torn. Both my grandfathers fought in wars under the current flag, so I wasn’t convinced entirely that we should have a new flag.”
Mr. Key had contended that a flag bearing a fern could generate more national pride, given its associations with the rugby team. He also raised a practical concern: New Zealand’s flag is similar to Australia’s, and Mr. Key said that he had sometimes been placed in front of the wrong flag at international events.
Chris Mullane, a 68-year-old Auckland resident who fought in the Vietnam War and was later stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, agreed that the country needed a more distinctive flag. Few Americans recognize the current one, he said.
“Any flag with the silver fern on it would have shouted ‘New Zealand,’ ” he said.
But like Mr. Key and other Silver Fern supporters, he said that the debate had been good for the country. Mr. Key said it was possible that every child in a New Zealand classroom had discussed the flag and what it means.
About 67 percent of the country’s 3.1 million registered voters cast a ballot, according to the electoral commission.
“We voted as a nation, and that’s a good thing,” said Steve Pomeroy, a Silver Fern backer who runs a pub in Christchurch. “It was a good place to start the conversation.”
Still, he said ruefully, “I’m thinking about flying the old flag upside-down.”
Source: The New York Times