Flag vote: History in the making?

Voting in the second referendum runs until March 24
Voting in the second referendum runs until March 24

It seems like such a simple question: What is your choice for the New Zealand flag?

But it is one which has divided the country, with those in both camps confident they're on the right side.

As the 3,153,000 voting forms are sent to households around New Zealand from today, the country stands ready to write a new chapter in its story. But how will the history books paint this moment?

Flag vote: History in the making?


Voting for the second and final binding postal referendum runs until March 24, and is likely to be divisive right to the end.

The latest Newshub polling from the start of February showed 61 percent were against changing the flag.

Flag vote: History in the making?


But Change the NZ Flag campaign chair Lewis Holden says despite the polling not being in favour of change, he is quietly confident the pendulum could shift.

"I can't walk down the street now and not see a silver fern flag. I think on the other side, there have been quite a few of the current flag that have cropped up all of a sudden too, so there's a feeling of momentum, the question is whether it'll be enough to get us across the line."

Should apparent public sentiment shift on changing the flag, Mr Holden believes Kiwis would quickly rally behind it.

"I'm 99 percent sure that's what will happen. We've got the Rio Olympics coming up, we've got all these other events. I'm sure you'll see the new flag becoming ubiquitous by the end of the year."

The argument for change seems to mostly revolve around the similarity with the Australian flag and represent a break from the colonial links with Britain.

But is that enough reason to prompt a change?

Not according to AUT history professor Paul Moon, who says past experience shows flag changes normally come from natural and organic processes like revolutions or political upheaval.

"This is a case of manufacturing history to say 'look, we're going to bring about a change in the flag for no particular reason'. There was no public appetite for it beforehand, there was no huge demand for it but we'll do it anyway."

Prof Moon says people can see through an artificial change and normally means the status quo remains.

He believes changing the flag would be an "act of historical amputation" and could be considered unpatriotic considering it had been part of New Zealand's life through every major event.

"If you discard that, and you say we're going to have a replacement flag, it has no paternity. It comes from nowhere and it doesn't really connect us with the past."

However, forgetting where we've come from as a nation because of a flag change is "nonsense", Mr Holden says.

"It's ridiculous. It's essentially saying New Zealanders are stupid and don't understand the fact we speak English is because it was a British colony and all that."

He says those who are against change are stuck in the past. 

"I think the other guys have this view, Winston Peters in particular, that we can carry on as this little Britain in the South Pacific and everything will be fine -- I look at the world and say, 'we'll that's not the reality and if you think it is you're very naive'."

The campaign to change the flag has been backed by a social media campaign, website, pamphlets and has now been endorsed by a number of high-profile sports people including Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Hayden Paddon, Maria Tutaia, Inga Tuigamala and Anna Stanley.

RSA national president BJ Clark says while he respects many of those who come out to support the Kyle Lockwood-designed flag, he thinks it is sad their public profiles have been used to convince people to vote for change.

"If you weren't trying to get people to change their minds, why would you have a significant New Zealanders giving their opinions -- that's been an unfortunate part of this process -- our message is very clear, you decide how you want to vote."

The RSA is against changing the flag, but Mr Clark says it has never tried to convert people to their line of thinking.

"That's the democratic process and that's the process that people of this great nation went to war to defend." 

The national organisation would fly whichever flag is chosen once the voting has been counted, though he couldn't say the same for individual members who could decide to never raise it up their flagpole.

"I for one have said when the time comes for me to go to the big RSA in the sky, the existing flag will be on my coffin. The RSA as a national organisation I believe has a responsibility to fly the New Zealand flag whatever that is. I say that quite confidently because I know which one it will be."

The idea needing to change the flag to assert a new identity is "terribly wrong," he says.

"That's what concerns me -- it's almost like there's an attitude of what we've got to do is forget where we've come from and forget our history and start all over again."

Changing the flag, by chance or by design, has the perception of it being a politicised process which has the potential to turn people off voting, Mr Holden says.

Prime Minister John Key has also been a major proponent for a new flag, publicly backing the silver fern and wearing the alternative flag as a lapel pin proudly on his many public engagements.

There's also been political fallout from all sides of the political spectrum.

That will probably be the legacy of the referenda, rather than it being a social movement, Prof Moon says.

If the polling is correct and the current flag is maintained, you probably won't be reading about it much in text books. 

"What tends to happen in cases like that is the way in which these events register in history is low --they hardly get a mention at all because it was something that didn't happen.

"Eventually they'll see this one as something led by a politician or a handful of politicians and it was a scheme that didn't come to fruition, it didn't work the way they wanted and it was forgotten about."

But whichever way the vote goes, Mr Clark believes it won't ever be able to do justice to the "wonderfully strange process".

"History will say it went to the nation and the nation made a decision and that's why we're looking up at the flag that we're looking up at now.

"What I would hope is that our children of the future will have a better understanding of our history."

And to influence that history, Mr Clark has some simple advice:

"Get out and vote -- that's the truly democratic thing we should be encouraging people to do."

So what is your choice for the New Zealand flag?

Flag vote: History in the making?

Flag vote: History in the making?