The tangled tale of New Zealand's flag debate

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New Zealand's existing flag and the Silver Fern on display in WellingtonImage source, AFP

The results are in, New Zealanders have spoken - and they do not want a new flag.

The outcome was close, with just 56.61% of people voting against change, but it is a personal blow for pro-change Prime Minister John Key.

Here's how the debate unfurled, from Laser Kiwi to Red Peak to Silver Fern.

This is New Zealand's flag, which has fluttered from flagpoles across the nation since the 1800s and was officially adopted in 1902.

Image source, AFP

The royal blue is meant to represent the sea and the sky, while the four stars are the Southern Cross, representing New Zealand's place in the Southern Ocean.

In the top left corner is the Union Flag, a legacy of New Zealand's identity as a British protectorate.

That was problem number one: New Zealand has been fully independent since 1947 and for many people, including the prime minister, the Union Flag is a constant unwelcome reminder of the colonial era.

And here's problem number two:

That's the Australian flag, almost identical except for the Commonwealth or Federation Star in the bottom left and an additional star in the, now white, Southern Cross.

Mr Key said this was "terribly confusing" for the rest of the world, and that he'd seen news broadcasts which placed him in front of the wrong flag.

Referendum plan announced

When Mr Key's National party was elected in 2014, he promised to put the issue to the people.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
New Zealand and Australia - too easily confused?

It was, said Mr Key, the "right time for New Zealanders to consider changing the design to one that better reflects our status as a modern, independent nation".

Laser Kiwi

It began in May 2015, when the official Flag Consideration Project panel invited absolutely anyone to suggest a design for a new flag.

A total of 10,292 had a go, and it's fair to say not all took the task entirely seriously, to the delight of commentators around the world.

Media caption,

New Zealand long-listed 40 designs - but not any of these

Image source, New Zealand Government
Image caption,
Blu Green Blu, by Phil Plunkett, suggested the best idea was to "keep it simple Bro!"
Image source, New Zealand Government
Image caption,
Phil Plunkett's red design - called Red - took simplicity a step further

Though some of the ideas, like Laser Kiwi, have arguably since become icons of the country anyway.

Image source, New Zealand Government
Image caption,
Fire the Lazar! by James Gray from Auckland. "The laser beam projects a powerful image of New Zealand. I believe my design is so powerful it does not need to be discussed."

On both sides of the debate, strong feelings began to emerge.

Former prime minister Jenny Shipley was quoted as saying she was "horrified to think that people would allow a colonial symbol to be part of the shadow that flies over us".

But military veterans said abandoning the flag soldiers had died under disrespected their sacrifice.

"So much has happened under our flag that has made us the nation we are today," said David Moger, of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association (RSA).

He told the BBC that reassurances to veterans they could still use the existing flag if they wanted were "a poor attempt to sideline" them.

Boring finalists?

The Flag Consideration Panel announced a long list of 40 in August 2015. The list dropped to 39 shortly after when one was removed for copyright reasons.

It was a fairly predictable selection of Maori symbols, silver ferns and Southern Crosses. Just one made a reference to the Union Jack.

Image source, NZ Flag Consideration Project

The Four Finalists and the Battle of Red Peak

A few weeks later, the Flag Consideration Panel unveiled it four finalists.

Image source, New Zealand government

Three silver ferns and one koru Maori symbol. All male designers, two of them the same man.

New Zealanders were by and large uninspired.

Image source, Twitter
Image source, Twitter
Image source, @avs_mac

The creative mind behind Laser Kiwi, incidentally, found them "a tad disappointing".

"I think these people actually take their artwork seriously."

The battle of Red Peak

But a rebellion was brewing. Across the land, New Zealanders were throwing their support behind an outsider - Red Peak by Wellington-based Aaron Dustin.

Image source, NZ Flag Consideration

Through the power of social media, some slick lobbying from Mr Dustin himself and perhaps a degree of trouble-making spirit, a petition for Red Peak to be added as a fifth finalist gobbled up signatures.

Signatories called it drawable, appropriately symbolic, and with the colours and shapes to represent the nation.

At first, Mr Key stood firm and defended the "well set-out process" of the judging panel. But 52,000 signatures were too many to ignore.

After a heated late-night debate, in which one MP compared Red Peak to a Nazi sentry box, parliament performed a dramatic U-turn and pushed through legislation to change the Flag Referendums Act to allow Red Peak to join the final stretch of the race.

The triumph of Silver Fern

Stage one of the referendum, which ran from mid-November to mid-December 2015 asked New Zealanders which of the five designs they'd want IF the flag were to change.

About 1.5 million people sent in a postal ballot, just under half of registered voters and a better turnout than some had predicted. And with just over 50% of the vote, this was the winner.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Silver Fern (Black, White and Blue) was one of three fern-related designs on the shortlist

Designer Kyle Lockwood, who'd had two designs in the final and had the prime minister's backing, said he was "speechless", but that as Silver Fern had both red on it and the Southern Cross "we've got the best of both worlds really".

The flag was put in place across the country so people could get a feel for it.

One feng shui master, however, told the New Zealand Herald the colours represented mourning and its bad energy could cause a stock market crash.

Union Jack for years to come

Another month-long postal ballot opened in March - after unexpected encouragement came from sitcom The Big Bang Theory telling the "crazy Kiwis" that "we're rooting for you".

This time, the ballot papers asked whether Silver Fern should officially become the new symbol of New Zealand.

Image source, NZ Government

More than two million ballots were sent in and from fairly early on it appeared the status quo was leading the way.

One telephone survey in late March, however, found 59% of people condemned the whole NZ$23m ($17.4m; £12.3m) process as "a distraction and a waste of money".

The result on 24 March was close: 1,200,003 for no change, 915,008 for change.

Mr Key took it on the chin, calling on New Zealanders to "embrace" their flag.

Image source, @johnkeypm

So is that it? Officially yes, the Union Jack-bedecked flag will continue to fly above Aotearoa.

But there will be plenty who say the current flag was just the least bad of the two options.

Lewis Holden, chairman of Change the NZ Flag campaign group, told the BBC earlier this week there was still "a large sentiment for change".

"But the questions remain on what to change to. We'll keep campaigning, we have thousands of followers on FB, and strong support base and strong sentiment, but simply the issues have got in the way of the process."

And of course it remains to be seen whether rebellious New Zealanders may yet be pinning a Laser Kiwi to their lapels.

Additional reporting by Tessa Wong