Flag vote to go ahead

SILVER FERN: Marie Hasler in a silver fern flag. She promoted a change to the country's flag in 2001.
SILVER FERN: Marie Hasler in a silver fern flag. She promoted a change to the country's flag in 2001.

New Zealanders will vote on whether or not the country needs a new flag, but not do so until after the next election.

Prime Minister John Key announced a referendum will be held during the next parliamentary term.

At a speech given today at Victoria University, Key said he would set up a cross-parliamentary working group to recommend the best way to hold a referendum, which would be held before the 2017 election.

Key said New Zealanders from outside of Parliament would also be included in a working group. Their main task would be engaging the New Zealand public in the debate.

"A flag that unites all New Zealanders should be selected by all New Zealanders. This decision is bigger than party politics," he said.

"I would like to see the referenda process completed during the next parliamentary term, so it does not intrude on the 2017 elections."

Labour leader David Cunliffe said he supported the cross parliamentary process and public debate.

"We're not going differ or divide from the Government on this issue. It's a broad constitutional issue, if the country wants a debate about the flag so be it, but it's not the primary issue for this election."

He said he was "happy" for a referendum to be held before the 2017 election, but questioned the timing of Key's announcement.

"I think the fact that it's been raised as a major issue by the Prime Minister at the same time he's announced the date [of the election] shows that he's keen not to talk about the issues that really matter to New Zealanders..."

The flag working group would seek submissions from the public on flag designs.

Key could not yet give details on how the group would operate, but said he wanted a flag that "says New Zealand".

"We want a design that says 'New Zealand', whether it's stiched on a Kiwi traveller's backpack outside a bar in Croatia, on a flagpole outside the United Nations, or standing in a Wellington southerly on top of the Beehive every working day."

By law, the flag can be changed through a simple Parliamentary majority, but Key said it was a decision for New Zealanders.

Speculation was rife a referendum would be held alongside the upcoming election on September 20. But Key said today, he did not want the debate to distract from election issues. 

Speaking to media after the speech, Key explained why he decided to split the referendum from the upcoming election.

"Over the course of the last month or so since this debate has been bubbling about in the media, what has been quite clear I think, is that New Zealanders are interested in the topic, they concede the merits of having the debate, but they also want to be engaged.

"They don't want to have it distracted as part of a political process and they want to give careful consideration. My view was that very clearly coming through that debate over the past couple of months is that people need a good amount of time and the process should be one that fully engages with all New Zealanders."

He said the process would likely end up with New Zealanders deciding on three or four potential designs, with the favourite being voted on against the status quo.

Key said it was his belief the design of the current flag symbolised a colonial era that had passed.

"...the current flag represents the thinking by and about a young country moving from 1800s to the 1900s. A time before commercial air travel. A time when we had less of a role in the Pacific and a time before Asia registered in our consciousness," he said.

"The flag remains dominated by the Union Jack in a way that we ourselves are no longer dominated by the United Kingdom."

Key said his personal preference was for a silver fern on a black background, but he was open to all ideas.

But he made it clear he did not see New Zealand weakening its link with the monarchy.

Key also said New Zealand could end up maintaining the status quo by the end of the process.

Anzac day centenary celebrations next year would be celebrated under the current flag.

"At dawn on April 25, 2015, here, and on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and at New Zealand diplomatic posts around the world, we will lower to half-mast the same flag under which our forefathers fought so valiantly, so far away, a hundred years ago."

Victoria University Vice Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford welcomed a national debate on the flag.

"It's wonderful to see New Zealand's journey of self-discovery and the pride that New Zealanders have in our heritage and our Maori heritage, flora and fauna and the arts.

"To bring this all together and debate about the flag will help, I think, in our sense of nationhood."

He said he was also pleased with the "respectful nature" of the timing.

"Because [to allow] 100 years to pass since the New Zealanders [Anzac troops] died under that flag, and then to to have the debate is the right thing to do."

"The flag is an issue for New Zealanders, but it's appropriate that it's not the focus of this election," Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said.

"There are much bigger issues at play this election, including increasing inequality, rising power prices and interest rates, dangerous climate change, and deteriorating water quality."

NZ First Veterans' Affairs spokesman Andrew Williams said it was the debate should be had after the Anzac Day centenary.

"Prime Minister John Key was clearly not listening to the returned servicemen and women and our military when he suggested a debate on the flag this year," he said.

"His idea was totally inappropriate and disrespectful heading into the World War I commemorations in 2015.

"By postponing the debate and announcing that a referendum should take place after the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in 2015 he has reflected on the gravity of his earlier statements."