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New Zealanders Are Voting Whether to Adopt a New Flag

The country could drop the Union Jack in favor of a design with a more distinctive national symbol

smithsonian.com

Update, March 24, 2016: New Zealand will keep its current flag after 56.6 percent of its voters elected to retain the flag, the Guardian reports.

For nearly 150 years, a blue flag with stars and a Union Jack has flown above New Zealand. But soon, the country could be represented by a black and blue flag that features New Zealand’s iconic silver fern instead. The BBC reports that New Zealanders are about to cast their votes in a referendum between the two flags.   

It’s the latest in a long process to ditch the country’s old flag in favor of a more modern—and less British—design. Though the current flag was legally adopted in 1902, it’s an adaptation of a design that’s been around since 1869, when it started to be used on colonial ships.

As part of the British Commonwealth, New Zealand is technically still ruled over by Queen Elizabeth as constitutional monarch, but it is completely sovereign. A debate over whether the Union Jack really should represent New Zealand has percolated for decades. Opponents to the current flag argue that it looks too much like Australia’s flag, misrepresents New Zealand as a British colony and ignores New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori.

“It is my belief, and I think one increasingly shared by many New Zealanders, that the design of the New Zealand flag symbolizes a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed," New Zealand prime minister John Key told the Telegraph’s Paul Chapman in 2014. That same year, Key assembled a working group to come up with a process to change the flag, and last year the public created more than 10,000 design suggestions.

The winning design for the "preferred alternate" flag, "Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue)," was created by architect Kyle Lockwood. It incorporates the silver fern—a New Zealand native plant with special significance in Māori culture that is already used as a national symbol on currency and elsewhere—and the Southern Cross constellation.

The first referendum asked voters the question: "If the New Zealand flag changes, which flag would you prefer?" While Lockwood's design won, it is not without its critics, some of whom refer to his proposal as “an ugly beach towel.” The referendum alone is estimated to cost more than $25 million New Zealand dollars (the equivalent of nearly $17 million in the U.S.), and the cost to adopt the new flag would be even more.

Like it or not, the referendum is moving forward. Starting today, New Zealanders can cast their vote between New Zealand's current flag and "Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue)." Undecided voters can get a bit of help by looking to their flagpoles—all over New Zealand, many communities will fly both flags next to one another until the referendum ends on March 24.

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