WELLINGTON • New Zealand voted yesterday to retain its national flag, which includes the Union Jack of its former colonial ruler, after a 16-month exercise that cost taxpayers NZ$26 million (S$24 million).
Preliminary results of a referendum showed 56.6 per cent of voters wanted to keep the flag, which is completed by the Southern Cross constellation, with critics dubbing the alternative featuring a silver fern a "beach towel".
Supporters of change, including Prime Minister John Key, were hoping to get rid of the Union Jack, the British flag that still adorns the top-left quarter of a handful of Commonwealth flags. They said the current flag is too closely tied to New Zealand's colonial history and is too easily confused with the flag of its nearest neighbour, Australia. The only distinction between the two is the colour and number of the Southern Cross stars.
Former rugby All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, a prominent supporter of the new flag, said he realised this before last year's World Cup final against Australia. "The moment I decided a new flag would be great for our country (was when) running out... and seeing the two flags looking so similar," Mr McCaw wrote on his Facebook page last month.
The alternative flag depicts a white fern on a black-and-blue background with four red stars. The design was meant to highlight the silver fern, widely considered the national symbol, but was likened by critics to both a towel and a corporate logo.
Said Wellington resident Sarah Newbold: "I voted to keep the flag - not really because I did not like the idea of change, more because the proposed new flag is so very ugly and a bit embarrassing... And it reminds me too much of rugby and a corporate logo."
The moment I decided a new flag would be great for our country (was when) running out... and seeing the two flags looking so similar.
MR RICHIE MCCAW, a former rugby All Blacks captain, and a prominent supporter of the new flag (photo).
It reminds me too much of rugby and a corporate logo.
MS SARAH NEWBOLD, a resident who voted to keep the existing flag.
More than 10,000 potential designs were submitted when Mr Key announced the referendum in October 2014.
One of the quirkier suggestions featured a native kiwi bird with laser beams shooting from its eyes, which were highlighted with glee by the international media and American comedian John Oliver.
The multimillion-dollar price tag for the referendum had caused some grumbling by voters and opposition politicians, but no major political fallout is expected.
Voter turnout was 2.1 million people, around 67.3 per cent of registered voters, and higher than the 49 per cent who voted in the first referendum to pick the alternative design. Yesterday's results did not include any ballots that were already in the post but had not yet been received.
The final results, which are not expected to significantly change, will be released on March 30.