A Vexillological Debate in New Zealand

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday was an exciting and slightly dismaying day for worldwide fans of vexillology—the study of flags. A New Zealand government panel announced its final four selections from more than 10,000 submissions for a new national flag:

The silver fern on three of the designs is a native plant some New Zealanders already embrace as a national symbol. Two flags feature the four-star Southern Cross. Australia and Brazil’s flags feature variants of the Southern Cross, as does New Zealand’s current one. The swirl in the fourth black-and-white flag represents the koru, another fern with a rich history in Maori art and culture.

Public reaction to the four designs among Kiwis has been … less than positive:

New Zealand adopted its current flag, featuring the Union Jack in the upper-left corner and four stars on the left side, as a British colony in 1902.

Prime Minister John Key announced a referendum last year to choose a new, “post-colonial” design and appointed a panel to consider submissions.

The referendum will be conducted in two stages.

First, New Zealanders will be able to vote throughout November and December on which flags they prefer. The most popular alternative design will then face off against the current flag in a March 2016 vote. If the initial reaction is any clue, it might be an easy victory for the status quo.