SYDNEY, Australia — The acting prime minister of New Zealand accused Australia this week of copying his country’s 116-year-old flag, and demanded that Australians come up with a new design.
“We had a flag that we’ve had for a long time, copied by Australia,” Winston Peters, who is filling in for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern while she takes maternity leave, told TVNZ, a state-owned network. “And they should actually change their flag and honor the fact that we got there first.”
Relations between the two neighbors have been strained recently over an Australian policy to deport New Zealanders convicted of crimes back to their home country. Could this latest spat over the flag result in a major international incident? Almost certainly not. But, here’s what it’s all about.
[Can you tell these doppelgänger flags apart? Take our short quiz and see.]
Did New Zealand really have the design first?
Yes! Sort of!
New Zealand adopted its flag — featuring a blue background, Union Jack and stars representing the Southern Cross constellation — in 1902. Australia did not formally adopt its flag until 1954, although a version was flown as early as 1901.
Though similar, the countries’ flags are not identical.
New Zealand’s features four five-pointed, red stars to represent the Southern Cross.
On the Australian flag, the four stars are white and each has seven points. Six of the stars’ points represent Australia’s six states. The seventh point represents the territories (although some conspiracy theorists suggest it represents the lost state of New Zealand).
An additional fifth star, with only five points, completes the constellation.
Why are the flags so similar?
When Capt. James Cook landed in Australia and (against orders of the Crown) declared the land a British colony, Australia and New Zealand shared a flag based on the blue ensign — a flag used by the British Navy.
Before 1901, New Zealand was considered a colony of Australia, and its name even appeared on the Australian Constitution. Throughout the 1890s, discussions were held between the colonies to “federate” and form a Commonwealth of Australia.
Fiji and New Zealand were initially a part of those discussions but decided not to join.
Has the flag been an issue before?
New Zealand tried to clear things up once and for all by holding a referendum on a redesigned flag in 2016. Mr. Peters opposed the alternative designs and argued then that if any country needed a new flag, it was Australia.
Ultimately, New Zealand residents voted to stick with the current flag.
Do other countries have a similar problem?
Chad and Romania, Indonesia and Monaco, Ireland and Ivory Coast, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. There are plenty of other countries with similar flags.
Why is New Zealand so angry?
As if it were not enough that people already confuse the New Zealand flag with Australia’s, Kiwis are tired of being invisible, or at least overlooked as a nation.
A citizen was even detained in Kazakhstan in 2016 after customs officials refused to believe New Zealand was a real country (insisting that her passport was fake and that New Zealand was, in fact, a state of Australia).
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of New Zealand’s prime minister. She is Jacinda Ardern, not Arden.
Orignially published in NYT.