New Zealand will hold a referendum within the next three years to determine if the national flag should be changed to reflect its 'post-colonial' independent status, Prime Minister John Key has announced.
“It’s my belief, and I think one increasingly shared by many New Zealanders, that the design of the New Zealand flag symbolises a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed,” Mr Key said in a speech at Victoria University on Tuesday.
"The flag remains dominated by the Union Jack in a way that we ourselves are no longer dominated by the United Kingdom," he added.
The nation's current flag depicts the Southern Cross star constellation in red and includes Britain's Union Jack flag in the top left corner. Some argue it is too similar to Australia's flag and does not reflect New Zealand's independence from its former coloniser, Britain.
Mr Key said a vote will ask if the current design should remain or be replaced with an alternative, such as the silver fern on a black background made famous by the All Black rugby team.
He voiced his own preference for such a design as an option, saying that "long decades of sweat and effort" by the athletes gives "the silver fern on a black background a distinctive and uniquely New Zealand identity". He remains open to ideas and other designs however.
He highlighted Canada's 1965 decision to drop the Union Jack in favour of its distinctive maple leaf design. "Fifty years on, I can't imagine many Canadians would, if asked, choose to go back to the old flag," he told the audience.
Mr Key also stressed any changes would not signify an end to New Zealand's constitutional ties to the British monarchy or its participation with the Commonwealth group of nations, in a bid to ease concerns that such a change would be considered as a snub.
"We retain a strong and important constitutional link to the monarchy and I get no sense of any groundswell of support to let that go," he said.
"Nor could we, or would we, dispose of the cultural legacy which gave us a proud democracy, a strong legal system and a rich artistic heritage."
It is not yet clear how popular the idea of changing the flag will prove. Don McIver, president of the Returned and Services Association (RSA) pointed to the thousands who had given their lives under the flag.
"The view of the RSA is there is no need to change the flag," he said. "Thirty-two thousand New Zealanders have given their lives under the flag and many more thousands have served under it in a combat environment."
The Republican Movement of New Zealand, which advocates an end to recognising the British monarch as New Zealand's head of state, remains indifferent.
"We realise there is momentum to change the flag, and we are not against it," said the movement's chairman. "But the substance is changing the head of state. It's symbolic only to change the flag."