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Actually, NZ$30 Million for a New Kiwi Flag Is Kind of Cheap

The New Zealand Government spends that every three and a half hours, just on existing.

by Ian Thomas Ackerman
18 August 2015, 6:18am

Image by Ben Thomson

The New Zealand flag, long confused with that of its egocentric neighbour, could be in for a change. After an open call for designs attracted 10,292 submissions from all and sundry, a flag panel of 12 people released a long list of 40. Between now and mid-September, the panel will whittle these down to four. Then there will be a mail-in referendum in November or December to determine which is the most popular. Finally, the government will hold yet another referendum in March 2016 to decide whether to keep the old flag or adopt the new one.

This whole process is going to cost about $26 million, whether or not the flag is actually changed. And then, if voters call for change in the second referendum, the cost of transition from the old flag to new will cost an additional $2.7 million. So all up, a new flag will come in at about $30 million.

Understandably, some aren't sure this is a good use of resources. "$26 million dollars could go towards rebuilding Christchurch, fixing up Wellington's repeatable flood zones and multiple other issues plaguing our cities," writes Susan Lester, who is running a petition to keep the flag. As her blog suggests, New Zealand could "use the millions of dollars to fix up other issues that mean way, way more than this."

So what are the reasons for a new flag? The two most commonly cited goals are about energising Kiwi patriotism, and bringing in more tourists. The first is hard to give a value, but Prime Minister John Key, who is one of the leading exponents for the flag movement, believes a new flag could earn them billions.

"If we change our flag, and that flag encompasses the silver fern, our country will see huge economic returns from that," said Key, referring to tourism, which earned New Zealand 7 percent of the country's GDP last year.

But the one aspect of this debate that hasn't drawn much attention is how little $30 million really is. Across the country, New Zealand spends a lot more just on running the government, every day. If we take their 2015 budget of $75 billion, and divide it by the 8,765.81 hours of one year, an administrated New Zealand costs just over eight and a half million, every hour. Roughly speaking, this puts the cost of a new flag at around three and half of regular-government-hours. And as Epsom electorate MP, David Seymour, says, "I would guess that most of those three and a half hours don't do a terrible amount of good."

Like John Key, David is all for changing the flag, and cites the branding success Canada received from changing their flag to the iconic maple leaf in 1965. Having said that though, he hasn't been blown away by the designs thus far. "What we've basically proven with all the other designs is how many ways 4 million people can arrange a koru, a southern cross and a silver fern. As it turns out, there's about 10,000 ways to do that".

Assuming the flag panel settles on something suitably impressive, you can definitely buy a lot less for $30 million. For example, Taylor Swift got a new Manhattan apartment earlier this year, bought off Peter Jackson for US$20 million, which is roughly $30 million in New Zealand. Or it can get you about a third of a new Boeing 737, which cost about US$80 million. The point is that $30 million just isn't that much any more. A full-on identity overhaul for a country should theoretically cost more than an apartment, or some of a plane.

But for the moment, the real challenge is to choose the right design. Seymour isn't overly positive about the current range on offer, but gives his tip nonetheless. "I like the one with an upside down V shape," he says. "It's a cool, original design, but it doesn't get me wildly aroused."

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