Britain's Prince Harry in New Zealand amid flag debate

Britain's Prince Harry in New Zealand amid flag debate

WELLINGTON - Britain's Prince Harry arrived in New Zealand Saturday to start a week-long visit amidst a national debate on whether the country should trim part of its colonial British ties by changing the flag.

The fifth in line to the British throne landed in Wellington after a month-long secondment to the Australian Army during which he received bush survival lessons and camped in the Outback.

He was officially welcomed at Government House by head of state Governor-General Jerry Mateparae, before paying his respects at the National War Memorial where he was met by more than 1,000 well-wishers.

Harry talked at length with school children at the official welcome, suggesting to some that if they ever wanted cake or cookies they should "just ring on the gate" at the Governor General's residence and they would be looked after.

He also feigned surprise that not all New Zealanders followed their national rugby team, the world champion All Blacks.

"I thought you would be forced to play rugby. That's why you have such a good rugby team isn't it?" the rugby-enthusiast prince said before admitting his family were mainly football followers and "most of the royal family are Arsenal fans".

One young girl gave Harry a card for his newly-born niece Princess Charlotte which he put in his suit pocket and promised to pass on to the newest member of the royal family when he returns to England.

The prince will end his first day in New Zealand attending a Super 15 rugby match between the home side and competition leaders Wellington Hurricanes and South Africa's Coastal Sharks.

'Thoroughly nice guy'

The 30-year-old's first visit to New Zealand comes as Prime Minister John Key prepares the country for a referendum on whether to change the national flag which is based on the British Blue Ensign.

Key is a monarchist and described Prince Harry as a "thoroughly nice guy", but believes that more than 100 years after New Zealand was granted dominion status by Britain it should have its own flag identity.

However, opinion polls indicate most New Zealanders favour the status quo.

The New Zealand Returned and Services Association (RSA), which represents veterans, argues that they have fought and died in wars under the existing flag and there is no thirst for change.

"It is to the flag that we turn to honour their courage, commitment and sacrifice," RSA president Barry Clark said.

"Our flag has stood the test of time and is part of the heritage that has shaped and formed the pioneering and innovative people that we are today."

New Zealand sports teams are recognised by their distinctive silver fern emblem on a black background although the national flag is raised at medal ceremonies.

While in New Zealand the prince will visit a bird sanctuary on Stewart Island, the southernmost inhabited region of the country, and see rebuilding work in Christchurch city which was shattered by a powerful earthquake in 2011.

He will also visit a military camp where he will be taught the New Zealand army's "haka", or war dance, and meet patients at a spinal rehabilitation unit which is supported by the New Zealand Rugby Foundation.

Prince Harry was officially farewelled from Australia on Thursday, with hundreds gathering outside Sydney's Opera House to see him.

During his time in Australia, Harry trained in the country's arid north in bush survival skills, including how to source food and water. He also spent time flying helicopters and with SAS commandos.

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