New Zealand picks new flag design to challenge current flag

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND:  New Zealanders chose a new flag design Tuesday that will be put up as a challenger to their current flag in a March vote.

The question of whether to change a national symbol that has endured for more than a century has raised plenty of passion, and skepticism, in this nation of 4.6 million.

People submitted more than 10,000 potential new flag designs, including bizarre ones like a kiwi, the iconic native bird, shooting a green laser beam from its eye.

In the end it came down to two flags by Kyle Lockwood that featured the same design of a silver fern and four red stars, but with different background colors.

Lockwood's black and blue flag just edged his red and darker blue flag 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent in a runoff vote. Even the designer found it a tough choice.

"I agonized over the two on my voting form," said Lockwood. "For a couple of weeks, I'd walk past it and think 'Which one?' I like them both equally."

Lockwood, 38, an architectural designer who was born in the capital Wellington and now lives in Australia, said he didn't want to say which one he gave his top vote.

His winning design has similarities to the current flag but ditches the British Union Jack, or Union Flag, in favor of the fern, which has become a national symbol and is worn by many sports teams, including the beloved All Blacks rugby team.

Those who want to change the current flag say it's too similar to Australia's flag and references a colonial past that it's time to leave behind.

But opinion polls taken before Tuesday's result indicated a majority favored keeping the existing flag. Many don't see the need for change or view the process as an expensive stunt by Prime Minister John Key, who opponents say is trying to forge a legacy or distract from other issues.

The RSA, which represents war veterans, is opposed to change, saying soldiers pledged allegiance to the current flag.

"Where were the people marching down the street saying 'Change the flag'?" said BJ Clark, the RSA national president. "If a majority had wanted it, then maybe we could understand it."

Those favoring Lockwood's design hope that opinions will change before March as the debate focuses in on the two flags.

Clark said people should vote with their heart and accept the result.

"The wonderful thing is that those people who served, fought for the country to be able to have their opinion," he said.