Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Kiwis face an important decision in two upcoming referendums.
It’s not everyday that a nation chooses a new flag by its own volition, with the support of the voters, without any drastic regime changes. New Zealand is doing exactly that. With the Flag Consideration Project, the Kiwis are trying on a new look.
In an open letter to the peoples of New Zealand, the panel for the Flag Consideration Project introduced 40 finalist designs for an all-new flag. Voters will decide what happens next in two referendums: one in November–December, and another in March 2016.
What was wrong with the old flag? Nothing, exactly, according to Malcolm Mulholland, a flag historian (vexillologist!) and member of the project’s panel. He says that since its introduction in 1902, the latest New Zealand flag has prompted questions about whether it was truly New Zealand enough. Probably he’s referring to the fact that it looks exactly like Australia’s flag.
The next flag should “unmistakably be from New Zealand and celebrate us as a progressive, inclusive nation that is connected to its environment, and has a sense of its past and a vision for its future,” per the panel’s open letter. (Or it should stay the same.)
Not a single one of the new finalist designs includes the official Union Jack, save one that transforms it with curlicues (Black Jack). It’s safe to say that if New Zealanders do adopt a new flag, it will probably feature a plant. A silver fern or a koru are elements common to almost every flag finalist.
The silver fern was put forward in the late 1990s as a design alternative—something along the lines of Canada’s maple leaf flag. Koru is the Māori word for “loop,” used to describe an unfurling fern frond, and it is a central metaphor in Māori creation myths. (New Zealand sought to ensure that the Māori and other indigenous peoples are represented by the flag.)
A lot of the finalist flags also feature a Southern Cross, imported from the flag New Zealand flies today. And a couple of flags feature neither a silver fern nor a koru drawing: There’s tukutuku and raranga to represent graphic abstraction. No flag features both an unfurled and unfurling fern frond, which I suppose would just be too much.
How a nation picks its flag is as important as the flag it picks. New Zealand is going out of its way to be as inclusive as possible. The jury panel whittled down a list of 40 finalists from a selection pool of some 10,292 entries, some of which included text, kiwi birds, and suggestive imagery. The panel will select four design alternatives from the long list of 40 flags to put forward to an instant-runoff vote starting in November. Finally, the alternative flag picked by New Zealand voters in the primary will go up against the current flag next March.
Altogether, it seems like a healthy process for foisting a new flag over the capital. Yet it may be too late for voters to rise up and insist, in one single Kiwi voice, that the people of New Zealand are best summed up by the vision of a sheep wearing a traffic cone and shades, smoking a joint.