New Zealand Flag: do we still think we are a colony?

The NZ flag debate really boils down to the presence of the British union jack and the blue ensign design; should it be on the New Zealand flag, yes or no?

The ‘no’s’ have a simple rationale. The blue ensign design inclusion of the union jack is an historical appendage dating back to when we were a colony of Britain in 1840 and to the almost total dependence we had on Great Britain as our primary buyer of our primary produce. That ended over two stages, firstly when New Zealand was granted independence in 1853 and secondly when Great Britain joined the European Union in 1973 and changed suppliers on us. But you do not put the flags of nations of which you once were a colony, or with which you once had a very strong commercial relationship, onto your flag. Since 1949, the relationship with Britain as a nation is that we are both in the Commonwealth of Nations and that we share a Royal family. Our allegiance to the Royal House of Windsor, which we share with fifteen other members of the Commonwealth of Nations, is a completely separate situation from our relationship with Great Britain.

Much of the support for retaining the union jack on our flag comes from a concern that deleting it may be disrespectful to the soldiers who gave their lives fighting for the country whose flag, at the time, contained the union jack in the upper left corner. Obviously most of those soldiers who fought in various conflicts over the last 100+ years are not here to explain their personal position and so others have assumed the authority to represent them in the debate.

The need for a flag in the first instance arose in the early 1830’s, prior to becoming a colony of Britain, so that our ships were not in breach of British navigation laws. Without a flag we could not trade by ship. So the decision was purely a commercial one. Nothing to do with war.

Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand

Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand

In 1834 the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand was chosen in a vote of 25 Northern Maori chiefs and was gazetted as New Zealand’s first flag.




Boer war medal with United Tribes flag

Boer war medal with United Tribes flag

Interestingly, although the union jack was adopted after NZ became a colony in 1840, it was this United Tribes flag that appeared on the backs of medals presented to NZ soldiers during the 2nd Boer War in 1902. In our first external military conflict, NZ soldiers fought under their own flag of the united tribes, not under the union jack.





Flag of Great Britain

Flag of Great Britain

When NZ became a colony of Great Britain in 1840, the union jack, flag of Great Britain, then became our national flag onshore, denoting our status as a colony of Great Britain.




180px-Flag_of_New_Zealand_Government_Ships_1867.svgAt sea NZ was represented by British naval or maritime flags until the passing of the Imperial Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865 when NZ had to design its own ensigns. This design was adopted in 1867. In 1869 it was replaced with a flag replacing the NZ with a southern cross of 4 red stars with white border. This is our current flag although it was officially only to be used at sea at this time.


Current NZ flag

Current NZ flag

 NZ was officially given independence of governance in 1853. But independence was a sort of evolution rather than revolution. It was in 1902, 50 years after independence, that the current design was gazetted as New Zealand’s legal flag replacing the union jack.



The Commonwealth of Nations was established in 1949 from the 53 former colonies of Great Britain, now governed independently of Great Britain. Queen Elizabeth is officially the Head of the Commonwealth of Nations but sixteen members of the Commonwealth of Nations, including New Zealand, also recognise the Queen as their official monarch in their own individual constitutions. Her title here is Queen of New Zealand. Independently she is also Queen of fifteen other countries in the Commonwealth.

Essentially New Zealanders were very comfortable being perceived as an outlying farm of the United Kingdom. Our population was dominated by people who either had been born in the United Kingdom, or whose parents or grandparents had been born there and bonds remained strong with ‘the old country’. Our flag reflected the close ties that we maintained, and in fact our economy depended on it. We were very vulnerable but we believed that with the union jack on our flag, Britain would always look after us.

So what a nasty shock we got when the mother country joined the European union in 1973 and told us it was high time we made our own way in the world. We had officially been given independence 120 years ago, in 1853, and Britain turned now to Europe for its farm produce.

Yet we still have the union jack, the flag of Great Britain on our national flag, on the flag our armed forces fight under  as though we are fighting for and representing Great Britain. The soldiers of the Boer war obviously related more to the United Tribes flag that appeared on their medals. But for soldiers since the first world war we need to clarify: did they fight for a flag? a uniform? for Britain? for New Zealand? for the Commonwealth? for a cause? for freedom?

The union jack itself did not appear on army uniforms. The badges on the NZ army uniforms represent what the soldiers were fighting under.

NZ Army crest

NZ Army crest

Officially NZ Army’s ultimate allegiance is to the Queen of New Zealand; the Crest of NZ Army recognises the allegiance to the Queen, but not in fact to Great Britain. They have a reference to the monarchy of New Zealand on their crest, but not a union jack.



Army cap badge

The general service cap badge worn during the first and second world wars has an unmistakable allegiance to New Zealand and the NZ monarch rather than to Great Britain.



Boer war

Boer war

Our armies also adopted the silver fern as a key design representation of who and what they were fighting for.


Our flag must accurately communicate who we are as a nation. We are a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and Queen Elizabeth 11 is the head of that body. In addition, the Queen is the Monarch of NZ under NZ constitutional law. Our constitutional link goes directly from our government to the Queen; it does not go via the government of Britain.

The union jack flag of Great Britain is not the flag of the Royal Family of Windsor. The union jack on our flag is constitutionally wrong; its presence can no longer be justified on economic grounds as it could for the first 120 years of our independence.

The union jack must go.

Redesigning our flag:

The first priority for a flag design must be that it is distinctive. When flags are lined up on a poster, we do not want to blend in like a piece of wallpaper.

The first and most distinguishing design factor of a flag is the colour. Like it or not, countless millions of dollars of investment, one way or another, have gone into identifying New Zealand with the colour black.

If we want instant recognition of our flag as uniquely ours, we must use black. That is a simple black and white decision.

Then we need to consider the elements on the flag.

1) The four stars of the Southern Cross were the single common feature which guided all seafaring people from distant lands to this land, Maori, Dutch, British and Asian. This common element of all the people of New Zealand must appear.

2) The silver fern: one feature must represent the land itself. The silver fern has been worn overseas in war and peace, by soldiers and sportspeople, to represent our land for 120 years. The silver fern must appear on our flag.

3) Our constitutional head of state. The Queen of New Zealand is Queen Elizabeth 11, head of the Royal House of Windsor. This must be recognised on our flag.

4) Aotearoa. We were the land of the long white cloud long before a passing Dutch explorer decided to name us after a region of the Netherlands. Of course we have too much invested in the recognition of the New Zealand name to ignore it, but Aotearoa should be alongside the name New Zealand. This is not a token exercise in political correctness, Aotearoa is at the root of the history of this country and must be on our flag. New Zealand is the land of the long white cloud. Aotearoa should sit alongside the name of New Zealand.

NZ Flag_B Then nothing more. Any more elements would detract from the focus of our national image to the world.


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