New Zealand Wants A Middle Earth Flag

The country’s Prime Minister has proposed erasing the Union Jack from the national flag—often confused with the pennant of arch-rival Australia—and replacing it with an elfin silver fern.

Oliver Strewe/Getty,Oliver Strewe

Almost 70 years after New Zealand declared independence from Britain, the prime minister says it is time to axe the last vestiges of colonial rule from the nation’s flag.

John Key, the leader of the National Party, has proposed a referendum on removing the Union Jack from the upper left-hand corner of the flag. An alternative design is yet to be approved but Key suggested it should incorporate the silver fern, which adorns the shirts of many of the country’s popular sports teams.

The prime minister argued that New Zealand should emulate Canada’s 1965 decision to ditch the old British Empire flag and replace it with something more distinctive. Canadians are still stitching the maple leaf to their belongings almost 50 years later. “I know it was a ferocious debate in Canada, but in the end would any Canadians look back and say they got it wrong with the maple leaf?” he asked.

The current New Zealand flag is predominantly blue with a constellation of stars on the right-hand side and a small Union Jack on the left. In other words, it’s extremely similar to the Australian flag, which is a source of constant irritation to the rival nations. In the mid-1980s, the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke arrived in Ottawa for a summit only to be greeted by New Zealand’s version.

Key’s preference for the silver fern raises other issues, however. It is traditionally set on a black background, most famously on the uniforms of the country’s World Cup-winning rugby team the All Blacks. As a concerned op-ed writer at the New Zealand Herald observed, black is a rather dour choice. “Surely no one could seriously be suggesting that a black background is a fitting color for our flag. Depending on your outlook, the color black symbolizes death, depression, evil and mourning,” wrote Shelley Bridgeman.

It would also lend an air of the pirate ship.

New Zealand commentators agree that an alternative must be identified before any vote is held on ditching the current flag, which has been fluttering over Auckland for 145 years. “In my view, the silver fern is something which is applied to our greatest sporting teams,” said Key. “It has international recognition and cachet. I think it’s part of the modern new look of New Zealand.”

Helen Clark, a former prime minister, suggested removing the Union Jack but keeping the Southern Cross on a blue background. The leader of the New Zealand Green Party argued that ditching the Union Jack from the flag should be part of a broader move to declare New Zealand a republic and replace the head of the British monarchy as the country’s head of state.

Key insisted that his flag proposal had no bearing on the wider issue of why Queen Elizabeth II was still head of state despite living more than 11,000 miles from Auckland. He has previously argued that the monarchy issue was totally off the agenda and there was a “feel-good factor” in New Zealand about Britain’s younger generation of royals.

The lingering remnants of the British Empire mean there are still 22 countries and territories outside the United Kingdom which feature the Union Jack on their flag, including Anguilla, Fiji and Montserrat. The state flag of Hawaii also has a Union Jack in the upper left corner, which is believed to have been adopted from an old flag of the colonial trading giants, the East India Company.

For some traditionalists, the precise design of a rival flag is irrelevant. John Banks, the leader of the Act Party, which plays a crucial role supporting Key’s minority government, said: “Men fought under that flag and sacrificed their lives in many war campaigns. I don’t want the flag changed.”

“And God Save the Queen.”