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Canning Colonialism: New Zealand to Vote On Scrapping Its Flag

Paraguay v New Zealand: Group F - 2010 FIFA World Cup

A New Zealand flag waves during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in June 2010. Cameron Spencer / Getty Images, file

New Zealand's political leaders confirmed this week that they will give voters the opportunity to scrap their national flag and come up with a new design.

The current flag features the United Kingdom's Union Jack in the top left corner, and ditching it would be a symbolic moment in the Pacific nation's historical relationship with the former British Empire.

Unlike the United States, which severed London's rule by winning the Revolutionary War, New Zealand is still part of an international community of former British colonies known as the Commonwealth.

Like Canada it still counts Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and she appears on coins and the New Zealand $20 note.

Image: New Zealand's flag
Victor Gizzi, left, and David Moginie, managers at flag manufacturer Flagmakers, pose next to flags of New Zealand, left, and Australia, in their factory near Wellington, New Zealand on March 3, 2014. Nick Perry / AP

Trying to change New Zealand's 'brand'

Prime Minister John Key announced on Tuesday that if his National Party wins again in September's general election, he would hold a referendum on the question within three years, something with which his opposition parties agreed.

He told an audience at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand's capital, that the design represented a bygone colonial era.

"I am proposing that we take one more step in the evolution of a modern New Zealand by acknowledging our independence through a flag," he said.

But some, including Labour leader David Cunliffe, criticized the timing of the announcement, describing it as a ploy to solidify support ahead of the election and distract from other issues such as the country's rising income inequality.

"John Key is like a matador waving a flag to get the bull to charge toward it rather than going for him," said Simon Leyton, a history professor at Britain's Cambridge University.

Leyton, a New Zealand national, told NBC News that his countrymen do not share the same reverence for their flag as Americans do for the Stars and Stripes. Changing it, he said, is Key's attempt to strengthen his country's "brand," and shift toward a more presidential model of politics, similar to that of the U.S.

A strong brand would help Key, a conservative, repair U.S. relations that were damaged when New Zealand's government of the 1980s banned nuclear warships from its waters. He is also keen to expand New Zealand's growing trade relationship with China, Leyton said.

"The United States loves its flag in a way New Zealand doesn't," said the historian. "Key wants to be a more presidential figure and having a strong flag will help him in this way."

If New Zealanders decide never again to hoist their current design, the next question would concern its replacement.

All Blacks fan hold a flag during the 20
An All Blacks rugby fan holds a flag during a 2011 Rugby World Cup match in Wellington in October 2011. WILLIAM WEST / AFP/Getty Images, file

What would a new flag look like?

Key has backed a design comprising a silver fern and a black background, which will be familiar to anyone who has watched the country's imposing All Blacks rugby team.

But critics say that this design, while perfect for sporting iconography, would be inappropriate for the world's political stage.

"Black flags have been either associated with pirates or anarchists - and we aren't a nation of pirates," Leyton said. "A lot of New Zealanders are sensible and realize this. So I don't think that will be voted as the design."

A change is by no means a certainty - a recent poll put those who want a new flag at a measly 28 percent. And following New Zealand's announcement, the Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop told the BBC while visiting the U.K. that there there was "no great demand" to follow its neighbor and change its design, which also features Britain's Union Jack.

However it is clear that - whether because of colonialism, politics, or opportunism - there is at least the appetite for debate on the subject.

As New Zealand activist Morgan Godfery wrote in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper on Tuesday: "New Zealand's flag represents a country that no longer exists."