Australia: flagging change or blowing in the wind?

The Age, 30 January 2011.

YOU might have missed it, but last week we entered a turning point in our national history.

The historical moment, according to advocates of a new Australian flag, was a statement by 12 former Australians of the Year calling for a new emblem to define the nation′s identity.

It was a major breakthrough, said Harold Scruby, the founder of Ausflag, the change-the-flag lobby group which drafted the statement. Ausflag chairman Robert Webster declared: "This is a turning point in the flag debate and in our history."

Launched on Australia Day, the statement was lost in a flurry of images of Australians waving and wearing the "old" flag, while Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott elbowed each other aside to declare their love and respect for the current ensign. If this was a turning point, it took us to a place we′ve been before.

Last year the figurehead was TV personality Ray Martin, who declared it was time we "grew up" and abandoned an emblem dominated by the Union Jack.

This year it was 2010 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry who similarly declared it was time Australians grew up. "Right now, it′s a bit like a slowly maturing Generation Y adolescent, a 27-year-old who just won′t leave home," Professor McGorry said.

This was deja vu to observers of the national identity debate like historian James Curran at the University of Sydney. "Every year," he says, "Ausflag claims an unprecedented development in the flag debate, and every year someone new has a crack at it."

And every year, the flagship of the change-the-flag campaign runs aground "because there is no ready-made alternative model that either has conceptual inspiration or, perhaps more importantly, popular legitimacy". In other words, a lot of people like the current flag and a lot dislike the alternatives that proponents of change periodically unfurl.

Ralph Kelly keeps an even closer eye on the flag debate. He′s a vexillologist - he studies flags - and is spokesman for the Flag Society of Australia. He′s also a member of Ausflag, but has no illusions about the task confronting supporters of change.

He says the factors usually essential to a flag change are absent or in short supply in Australia.

Flags usually change or emerge when a new country is formed. The latest flag charted by vexillologists is Southern Sudan′s following this month′s vote for independence.

Other changes are brought about by war or revolution, with Iraq and Afghanistan recent examples. Then there′s constitutional change, most recently in Burma where the regime imposed a new flag last October ahead of not-so-democratic elections the following month.

In keeping with the Burmese junta′s reputation for wackiness (astrologers were consulted when the capital shifted in 2005), the regime ordered old flags be taken down by someone born on a Tuesday and the new one raised by someone born on a Wednesday.

Last year, Malawi changed its flag following a controversial campaign by President Bingu wa Mutharika. The new flag replaced a rising sun with a fully-risen one, symbolising what the president argued was the progress made since independence.

If the Malawi case was driven by a politician determined to make a strong statement about national identity, so was Canada′s flag change in 1965 - an example often used by Australia′s flag advocates.

"Political vision is what drove the change in Canada," says Mr Kelly. "It was seen as part of the nation growing up, part of a political vision of a nation looking forward as a united country, joining people with French and British backgrounds."

"In Canada′s example you had the political will, the ′vision thing′. That′s missing here, and that′s what Ausflag faces. There are no votes in it, and a lot against it."

One problem, Mr Kelly says, is the abundance of alternative designs, put forward by Ausflag and others. None satisfies everyone, and the multiple designs make it hard for supporters of change to coalesce.

As multiple alternative designs emerge, opinion polls show growing support for the current flag.

A Morgan poll in April last year put support for retaining the existing flag at 69 per cent - up 16 per cent since February 1998. Only 24 per cent (down 17 per cent) wanted to scrap the Union Jack.

One problem with alternatives is that they lack symbolism with ′′a deep-rooted sense of the people′′ and therefore lack popular legitimacy, says Dr Curran.

He′d like the flag changed. Like Paul Keating, he believes the current one is an ambiguous representation of Australia. But he notes a renewed sense of Australian patriotism that is closely attached to the flag.

"It′s connected to Anzac and to people who feel they′ve been left out by the chill winds of multiculturalism," Dr Curran says.

"There is something about this flag that people say: ′Whatever you think about the Union Jack, that′s part of this country′s experience; we should hang on to these things; we shouldn′t change these symbols willy-nilly′."

"Ausflag ignores these sentiments at its peril. At the same time, the political courage and the political capital required to take up the case for a change are in pretty short supply."

"Who will grasp the nettle? It certainly won′t be Gillard. She just seems to be running a million miles in the other direction."