In asking whether it should change the national flag, New Zealand’s government sought to start a conversation about what the country “stands for”. In so many joke designs, New Zealanders responded: their right to take the p**s.

In May, the government put out an open call for alternatives to the current flag, which, like Hong Kong’s colonial-era standard, bears the Union Jack. New Zealand pairs that symbol of British empire with the Southern Cross constellation. In a little under two months, members of the public - many if not most of whom had no more design experience than that afforded by Photoshop and an internet connection - put forward almost 10,300 submissions for consideration by an independent panel.

The panel may have come to regret the low barrier to entry. As long as a design did not feature offensive or copyrighted imagery, or an individual’s face, its upload was approved. The 10,292 submissions were a mishmash of New Zealand’s past, present and potential futures: some giving the Union Jack even greater prominence; others boosting traditional Maori culture; one with a kiwi shooting lasers from its eyes.

The government had made it clear that, at that point in the process, there was no such thing as a bad idea - not even those that were patently, gleefully daring it to call them out as such. A childlike line drawing of a “deranged cat raking its garden”; a crude scrawl of a man on a bicycle; the Southern Cross reimagined as a pentagram; most egregiously, a QR code. A spokeswoman for the panel said it was “great to see such a high level of engagement”.

Needless to say, none of these blatant trolls of the public consultation process made the longlist of 40 finalists published on August 10. All are variations on the silver fern, the koru, the Southern Cross constellation and combinations of the three, in blue, red, white, black and green.

The 12 people on the panel - none of whom is a designer - will now whittle them down to the four that “best represent New Zealand”, which the public will rank in a binding postal referendum later this year. The favourite will be deemed the preferred alternative to the existing flag, and - if the current timeline is observed - a second referendum in April will ask voters to pick between the two.

If a new design is voted in, it will take effect six months to the day after the results are declared. But if public opinion persists, there’s a strong likelihood that the result will be an anticlimax, with voters accepting the status quo as an easy way out of a conversation that they never really wanted to have.

As Australian republicans follow the debate from across the Tasman with envy, there is a sense within New Zealand that there is no real impetus to change the flag, especially without an associated debate about whether to become a republic, and that the NZ$26 million (HK$133 million) spent on the process could be put to better use. (Nevertheless, the flag debate has apparently also sparked “growing calls” for a change of anthem.)

Since the process got under way in earnest in May, the public response has ranged from apathy – 25 nationwide meetings on the issue were attended by a total of 739 people , an average of only 29 – to hostility. Days after it put out a call for submissions, the Flag Consideration Panel published a word cloud that suggested many New Zealanders wanted the flag left alone.

“The moment seems to have passed,” says Matthew Hooton, a political commentator who called for the flag to be changed to a silver fern on black at the time of the Rugby World Cup in 2011. “It just seemed like the moment to do it. But four years later, the momentum is lost and the flag change idea seems too closely associated with the prime minister of the day rather than the national sentiment.”

Gareth Morgan, a businessman and philanthropist who has been vocal in his dislike of the existing design, tried to breathe life into the debate by running his own competition with a cash prize of NZ$20,000 for the design that best met his brief. (It wasn’t the first time Morgan has offered a financial incentive to community participation: in a short-lived bid to protect New Zealand’s native birds, he put up a NZ$5 bounty for every dead cat.) Morgan’s competition was won by an Auckland design studio; the designers of the 40 flags longlisted by the government panel will go unpaid, even if their submission makes the final four.

Pax Zwanikken, a New Zealander based in Sydney, submitted 25 designs, of which two made the longlist. He says that the two chosen were intentionally less divisive in their concept, “to appeal to the safe, conservative inclination of a committee”. His preference would have been not to refer to the Southern Cross, even obliquely.

He says the process missed an opportunity to produce a range of ideas and potential motifs: “It was never going to be a bold step away, because publics and committees inherently don’t do that.”

Zwanikken says public opinion has turned on the issue, partly because of the cost, but also because it feels like an imposition. “This didn’t come out of a groundswell of public desire for a new flag, even if there’s little affection for the existing one. Especially for something that people didn’t really care about in the first place, the easiest response is resentment.

“Even if this longlist was 40 of the most incredible concepts you’ve ever seen, the public wouldn’t be in support of it. It doesn’t help that they’re not.”

At the head of the charge is the prime minister, John Key - the popular, everyman leader of the centre-right National party, now in its third term of government. He first floated the idea of changing the flag to a mixed response early last year, in the lead-up to the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (which, in 1840, established a British governor of New Zealand and afforded Maoris a range of rights), shortly before announcing that a referendum would be held on the flag in the next parliamentary term.

Key’s obvious investment is all the more notable given how hands-off he is on other matters. Like Tony Abbott, the prime minister of Australia, Key has an impenetrable, water-off-a-duck’s-back quality, which allowed him not only to weather serious accusations of international surveillance and “dirty politics” lobbed at his party during its 2014 election campaign but emerge more popular than ever.

TV and radio host Duncan Garner has speculated that the bid to change the flag is Key’s “attempt at nation-building [and building his own legacy as a leader]”. Perhaps in response his political opponents have positioned themselves against a change in flag, calling for the process to be truncated or even abandoned. The Labour leader, Andrew Little, has told the government that given the “spectacular lack of interest and support … now’s the time to just call a halt to the whole thing”.

The Green Party has pointed out the shortcomings of a conversation about independence framed in purely symbolic terms. “Just changing a piece of cloth” would not alter the fact that New Zealand’s head of state remained the British monarch, MP Russel Norman said in parliament.

But Key has resisted the argument that the debate is empty symbolism, arguing, somewhat implausibly, that a change in flag “has got to be worth billions over time” in brand recognition. He pointed to Canada’s transition from a Union Jack ensign to the maple leaf in 1965: “Show me a single Canadian on the planet who would go back to their old flag. 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.”

New Zealand is already known internationally by the All Blacks’ logo of a silver fern on black, and this was Key’s preference for the flag until an Australian commentator pointed out that it bore a passing resemblance to that of Islamic State. After American television talk-show host John Oliver picked up on it, Key subsequently switched his support to a fern design in red, white and blue.

A new flag for New Zealand is about a new brand, but what exactly that might be - beyond “not Isis”- no one seems to know or even care.

“The question we probably need to ask is ‘why does New Zealand exist’?” wrote Jono Aidney, an advertising executive, of the government’s process. “Is our purpose unfettered economic progress? Is it to be an ethical voice on the world stage? A place where every child gets a fair start? Guardians of nature? Nature’s pimps? If we can work out what our collective ‘purpose’ is, we’ll have a chance of turning that idea into a flag.”

It seems inevitable that New Zealand will end up voting on a new flag, whether it wants to or not. If the existing design is backed by the public, it is likely to settle the matter for generations.

For that reason alone, Zwanikken says, as much as New Zealanders might resent the issue being flagged at all, it doesn’t make sense to squander the opportunity out of spite.

“The important thing is to acknowledge that while the process itself is flawed, the fact is the money is being spent, it’s happening anyway, so it would be a real shame not to make something good of this.

“We won’t get a chance again.”

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