NEW ZEALAND: Changing its flag and name / Silver fern and Aotearoa

In 2015/2016, New Zealand held two referendums on changing its flag, seen by some as too colonial and not sufficiently distinct from Australia’s. The first referendum was to pick an alternate design, settling on keeping the Southern Cross and swapping the Union Jack for a silver fern. The second referendum was then a vote between the old and the proposed flag – the below video is from after the first vote, and gives a good explanation of the reasons and process:

The second referendum failed, with 57% of New Zealanders voted to keep their current flag. The referendum was criticized over both the process and that changing the flag became politicized between the government and opposition, with critics calling it Prime Minister Key’s “vanity project“.

While the flag is staying at the status quo for now, the name of the country is currently up for discussion. In 2021, the Maori Party introduced a petition with 60,000 signatures calling to change the name of New Zealand to Aotearoa, the Maori name for the country. Here’s an interesting interview with Australian media with the co-leader of the Maori Party, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, on the petition and name, Maori health and social outcomes, the effects of the pandemic on Maori communities, and asserting Maori cultural integrity.

Aotearoa is increasingly being used interchangeably with the name New Zealand, however, there does not seem to be a push to fully change the name. PM Ardern has taken a bit of a cautious middle ground, not supporting a full legal change, but accepting and herself using Aotearoa at times.

Like the flag debate, there seems to be a risk of this becoming politicized. Last year, the right-wing National Party supported an immediate referendum on the name change – likely as they knew it would lose, since polls show most Kiwis currently prefer the status quo or using the names interchangeably, instead of eliminating the old name. A decisive referendum result could then be used by parties like the National Party to push back against the general use of the Maori name or changing other names inside the country to their original Maori names. A National MP even went as far last year as saying that Aotearoa should be banned from all official documents.

Maori leaders on the South Island have also expressed some concern that Aotearoa as a name historically only refers to the North Island. So while a formal name change isn’t on the table just yet, the use of Aotearoa seems to be growing – several businesses have either switched or use it in te reo (the Maori language), most notably Vodafone changing its network name in 2020 from “Vodafone NZ” to “VF Aotearoa” on customers’ phones. (Though I’m not sure if it’s permanent – they seem to have switched to “Vodafone – Stay Safe” as the pandemic worsened in early 2021.)

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