The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Zealand spent $17 million on a failed flag referendum. Now it wants Australia to change its flag instead.

The Australian flag, bottom, and the New Zealand flag, with its distinctive red stars, fly on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2005. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

It took 10 months and roughly $17 million for New Zealanders to decide they didn't want a new flag.

That was an awkward discovery for then-Prime Minister John Key, who had pumped the time and money into a design competition for a new flag and a referendum on choosing one. But in 2016, after a finalist for a new flag had been selected, almost 57 percent of Kiwis opted to keep their old flag.

Key had hoped that a fresh design would better differentiate New Zealand from Australia. The two countries have nearly identical flags: New Zealand's is blue with a Union Jack emblem in the top left corner and four red and white stars on the right side; the Australian flag is also blue with a Union Jack in the corner, but it has one white star below that and five white stars to the right. The two flags look so similar that they are occasionally mixed up, and were apparently even swapped for each other at an Olympic medal ceremony in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

After the failed referendum, it seemed that the flag drama between the two countries had perhaps cooled down. But this week, acting New Zealand prime minister Winston Peters told TVNZ that Australia “copied” the Kiwi flag and “should actually change their flag and honor the fact that we got there first with this design.” Peters, who opposed the idea that New Zealand be the one to replace its flag in 2016, is serving as the country's head of government while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern takes maternity leave.

The dig at Australia's flag reignited an old debate and came at a tense time for Australia and New Zealand. More than half a million Kiwis live in Australia, and according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, more than 1,300 have been deported in the past three years, raising concerns in New Zealand.

In 2014, Australia changed its immigration policies, allowing longtime residents to be deported if they didn't pass a “character test,” meaning residents with certain criminal records can have their visas canceled. More New Zealanders are now in immigration detention in Australia than people from any other country. According to the New York Times, at least 60 percent of those sent back to New Zealand in recent years identify as Maori and Pacific Islander.

In an interview with ABC earlier this month, New Zealand Justice Minister Andrew Little said Australia's deportation policy and treatment of certain New Zealanders are “certainly not consistent with any humanitarian ideals that I thought both countries once shared.”

“I never want to be part of a government in New Zealand that would deport a 16-year-old Australian back to Australia,” he said, referring to the case of one deported Kiwi.

As for the history behind the flags, the two countries feature the Union Jack as a reference to their British history. And the stars on the right side of each flag symbolize the Southern Cross constellation, which can be seen in the South Pacific region.

New Zealand adopted its current design in 1902 — Australia didn't do the same for its flag until 1954. A version of its current design was apparently flown in Australia in 1901, but a New Zealand government website claims that versions of the current New Zealand flag were flown as early as the 1860s, usually on ships.

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