Referendum set to end divisions over New Zealand flag

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Wellington, March 2 (IANS) New Zealand will decide its national flag in a postal referendum in March beginning on Thursday, the media reported.

The referendum is the culmination of months of polarising and bitter debate.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English on Wednesday urged all New Zealanders to cast their vote in the ballot, which will open on March 3 and close on March 26, Xinhua news agency reported.

Voters will choose between the current flag, a blue field with the British Union Jack in the top left corner and the Southern Cross constellation of red stars on the right, and a new design that retains the star formation, but replaces the Union Jack with a white stylised silver fern on a blue and black background.

The silver fern design emerged as the winner of an initial referendum last year, in which New Zealanders were asked to grade their preferences for five possible alternatives.

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“A total of 1,546,734 votes were cast in that first referendum, which is 48.78 percent of enrolled voters,” Bill English said, adding “this indicates the time is right for us to have this conversation”.

New Zealanders should celebrate the fact that their country was the first in the world to ask citizens for their views on the design of their national flag, he said.

“Our current flag has served us for over a century, and it is possible that the new flag serves us for another century or longer,” he added.

The process has been marred by controversy among the political parties since it was initiated by Prime Minister John Key after the 2014 general election.

Campaigners for the current flag have derided the silver fern design as a souvenir-type “tea towel” and a shallow corporate-style logo.

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Political opponents have described it as a waste of money and a “vanity project” of the prime minister.

Critics of the present flag, including Key, say it is too similar to the Australian flag and that it is a hangover from the country’s colonial past.

Key, who openly supports the silver fern contender, said New Zealanders were unlikely to have another chance to choose their flag before the country became a republic, an event that was unlikely to happen in his lifetime.

However, opinion polls have shown a consistent majority support for the current flag.

The entire project is expected to cost over $17.24 million.

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