The Silver Fern Flag (left) and the current New Zealand flag (right) designs.
The Silver Fern Flag (left) and the current New Zealand flag (right) designs. AAP

Flag referendum: Moment of truth for New Zealand

THE moment has nearly arrived. New Zealand will find out whether its national flag will change for the first time in 114 years.

Following a 15-month process, the Electoral Commission will announce a preliminary result in the second flag referendum tonight.

More than 1.9 million people have voted in the postal referendum so far, a turnout of 61.1 per cent - higher than the anti-smacking referendum in 2009 but lower than the vote on compulsory pensions in 1997.

The high levels of engagement were proof that the flag debate was worth having, Prime Minister John Key said today - regardless of the outcome.

"When some people said this is an issue that either captivates the minds of New Zealanders or they are not interested, then actually the numbers have proven that to be incorrect," he said.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters had criticised the referendum, partly because of its $26 million cost. Mr Key said the New Zealand First-sponsored referendum on superannuation cost the same amount and was resoundingly defeated.

Polls are consistently showing that New Zealand will keep its Union Jack and Southern Cross design, which has been the national flag since 1902.

Mr Key made a final pitch for his preferred design, a blue and black flag featuring a silver fern which was selected out of 10,300 public entries.

"It's fundamentally about taking the Union Jack off and putting the silver fern on," he said.

"To me, that's a symbol that we're known by. That's a symbol that we put on our Commonwealth war graves. That's a symbol that's internationally recognisable."

The Prime Minister kicked off the flag referendum process in March 2014. The process has been divisive and MPs from the major political parties are generally voting along party lines - Labour against change and National in favour.

Mr Key said the referendum would not leave a mark on his leadership.

"I never actually saw it as part of my legacy, one way or the other," he told reporters. If the flag changed, future generations would not recall the leader of the time, he said.

"I can't tell you who the Canadian PM was when they changed the flag. Most Canadians probably can't. I've got lots of things I would like to mark down as my legacy ... but the flag isn't going to be one of them."

Labour leader Andrew Little, who is voting against change, has said that the debate could be held again when New Zealand considered becoming a republic.

Voters have until the end of today to make up their mind. Ballot papers which are postmarked before 7pm, will still count in the referendum.

A final result will be confirmed next Wednesday once all late votes have been counted.

When is the flag vote announced?

A preliminary result will be confirmed around 8pm tonight. A final result will be declared on Wednesday the following week.

What happens next?

If the alternative flag wins, the design will gradually be rolled out across the country, probably making a debut at the Olympic Games in August.

If the status quo wins, the issue is expected to be retired for some time, at least until New Zealand debates a change to a republic.

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