Wellington: New Zealanders will learn Thursday whether a proposal to ditch Britain's Union Jack from the national flag has been successful, with opinion polls indicating they will stick with the existing banner.
Prime Minister John Key has been the main advocate for change, organising a referendum on the issue he describes as a once-in-a-generation chance to update the flag after more than a century.
"It's fundamentally about taking the Union Jack off and putting the silver fern on," Key said this week.
He has called the existing flag a relic of British colonial days, saying the silver fern used by the All Blacks "screams New Zealand" in the same way the maple leaf identifies Canadians.
But after an 18-month process costing NZ$26 million (US$17.5 million) it appears New Zealanders are overwhelmingly against change.
About three million ballot papers have been distributed in the South Pacific nation of 4.5 million people for the vote, conducted only by post and which closes at 7.00pm Thursday (0600 GMT).
Preliminary results will be released about 90 minutes later and polling has consistently indicated about two-thirds of the electorate support the status quo.
On one side of the ballot is the existing flag, a dark blue ensign with the Union Jack in the top left corner and four red stars representing the Southern Cross constellation.
On the other is the proposed alternative — a silver fern on a black-and-blue background, which retains the four stars.
Created by designer Kyle Lockwood, it beat four other proposed flags in a preliminary referendum last December.
Veterans' group the Returned and Services Association argues that to change the flag disrespects previous generations who fought and died under the banner.
Others criticise the design's aesthetics, with actor Sam Neill saying: "This ugly beach towel is no alternative. It's hideous."
But there are high-profile advocates for change, including ex-All Black skipper Richie McCaw, who says the existing flag is too similar to Australia's.
"The silver fern has always been the special symbol on the All Black jersey... so the new flag with a silver fern as a part of it would be a great option," he posted on Facebook earlier this month.
The flag debate has also become mired in political controversy, with many seeing it as Key's pet project.
The conservative leader's popularity ratings remain stubbornly high, even after eight years in power, and political opponents have seized on the chance to deal him a rare electoral defeat.
The centre-left Labour Party, normally a reformist organisation, has condemned the entire debate as Key's "hugely expensive and highly unpopular vanity project".
But the often-heated debate has also had its lighter moments, particularly when the original 10,000-plus submissions for new flags were publicly released.
One of the most popular designs with online users was a flag featuring a kiwi bird shooting green lasers from its eyes.
Another had a sheep alongside a cone of ice cream, with designer Jesse Gibbs saying he had selected two of New Zealand's favourite things to create a combination that was "Kiwi as bro".
Key said he remained hopeful for change but felt the referendum had succeeded regardless by stirring debate on national identity.
"I don't hate the current New Zealand flag. I just think a new one would be better because it's more reflective of us," he told reporters on Thursday.
Updated Date: Mar 24, 2016 08:17 AM