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After $17 Million, Ponytail-Pulling New Zealand Prime Minister Loses Flag Referendum

After 10 months and $17 million, New Zealand decided not to change its flag after all.

The current New Zealand flag (R) flutters next to the alternative flag (L) in Wellington on March 4, 2016.  New Zealanders began voting on March 3, on whether to adopt a new flag, in a referendum Prime Minister John Key has called a once-in-a-generation chance to ditch Britain's Union Jack from the national banner.   AFP PHOTO / MARTY MELVILLE / AFP / Marty Melville        (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
The current New Zealand flag (R) flutters next to the alternative flag (L) in Wellington on March 4, 2016. New Zealanders began voting on March 3, on whether to adopt a new flag, in a referendum Prime Minister John Key has called a once-in-a-generation chance to ditch Britain's Union Jack from the national banner. AFP PHOTO / MARTY MELVILLE / AFP / Marty Melville (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

What New Zealand Prime Minister John Key wanted was simple: a new national flag that would remove the British Union Jack and keep him from being seated under Australia’s similar-looking flag by mistake. So he launched a $17 million, 10-month-long project to try to make it happen — and he lost.

On Thursday, New Zealand announced that according to preliminary results, 56.6 percent of its citizens wanted to keep the old design. The national referendum had pitted the original flag against a new black, white, and blue design that included the silver fern, an important plant in Maori traditions.

The rival flag was designed by Kyle Lockwood, a New Zealander who submitted his designs to the judges charged with narrowing the approximately 10,000 submissions down to a list of 40 last August. The panel cut the list of contenders to four in September before a fifth was added after a social media campaign complained all of the options looked too much alike. Two of Lockwood’s designs — which to be fair were nearly identical– made the final cut before voters chose one as a finalist in December.

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times this month, New Zealand native Steve Braunias likened Lockwood’s winning design to a beach towel.

The redesigned flag — a white fern leaf laid over a black-and-blue background — looks happy and foolish, not unlike our prime minister, John Key,” he wrote, noting that Key is well-known for his complicity in repeatedly pulling a waitress’s ponytail every time he went to the café where she worked. The woman revealed his curious habit in a blog post last year, claiming that he apologized with two bottles of wine after she told him she would hit him if he did it again.

“I shouldn’t have to tell THE PRIME MINISTER that I don’t like it when he pulls my hair,” she wrote. “Talk about stating the obvious!”

Thursday’s loss will probably hurt no one more than Key, who was very excited by the possibility of a flag with a silver fern and stood by his aggressive push for a redesign even as the opposition Labour leader mocked it, claiming last year that there was a “spectacular lack of interest and support” and it was “time to just call a halt to the whole thing.”

Key’s main talking point for selling the redesign was how it would free New Zealand from its history of colonialism. At one point, probably while feeling especially sensitive about how he was mistaken for an Australian, he tried to make the sell by pointing to Canada’s decision to change its flag to the maple leaf in 1965.

“Show me a single Canadian on the planet who would go back to their old flag,” he said. “Not a single Canadian would, because if I walked in with a sweatshirt on with a maple leaf on, you would say instantaneously that person lives in Canada, is a Canadian, or has been to Canada.”

Still, on Thursday, Key tried to keep his chin up about the whole thing, admitting he was a “bit disappointed” but calling the $17 million process one that was worth it for the learning experience. “Just because it’s not the outcome I wanted doesn’t mean it wasn’t a worthwhile process,” he said.

Lewis Holman, chairman of the country’s Change the Flag campaign, claimed Thursday that most New Zealanders were likely in favor of changing the design, just not to Lockwood’s fern design.

“I do think it [a flag change] will happen in the next decade,” he said. “This has kicked off the debate. This isn’t the end, just the beginning.”

If there’s one person who would be delighted to see another flag debate, it’s comedian John Oliver. In a recent segment about New Zealand’s Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce being hit in the face with a dildo during a news conference, Oliver got beloved New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson to film himself dramatically waving a massive flag. It featured only two things: the Union Jack and the moment the dildo hit Joyce’s face.

Photo credit: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

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