Australia's national symbol by default

Newcastle Herald, Tuesday 11 September 2001

By Harold Scruby
Harold Scruby is executive director of Ausflag

A tear in your eye for the old Aussie flag? Spare the sentiment

They say that the first casualty of war is the truth.

Last week, Bruce Scott, Minister for Veterans′ Affairs, proved this axiom by attempting to turn Australian flag mythology into dogma and create yet another casualty of war. In his media release of last week, Mr Scott states:

Today as we mark 100 years of the Australian national flag I urge all Australians, wherever they are, to fly the flag as a tribute to every Australian who has defended those values and to the courage of the Anzacs.

Over the past 100 years, more than 1million Australians have served under the Australian national flag and 102,000 Australians have died defending our national symbol during war and conflict.

If the Australian national flag is to continue to stand as a tribute to those who have defended our national symbol and the values and traditions it stands for, any attempts to change the flag must be opposed.

What utter nonsense.

While recognising the enormous sacrifices of Australian servicemen and women, the fact remains that the blue Australian flag as we now know it, did not come into widespread use until it was proclaimed by the Menzies Government in the Flags Act of 1953.

The Breakwater Battery Museum at Port Kembla, NSW, operated by the State′s Maritime Services Board, displays a tattered 50-year-old red ensign, upon which is a stitched cloth sign:

Original Australian National Flag... The red flag was the standard Nat. flag from 1901 until after WW2. The blue Australian flag did not become general issue until after WW2. This is the flag our troops fought under in World Wars I and II.

The Changi flag, a red ensign kept secretly by Australian prisoners of war, was bought by the Victorian RSL president, Mr Bruce Ruxton, in 1989 for $25,000.

The painting by Septimus Power, of the opening of Parliament House by the Duke and Duchess of Kent in 1927, which used to hang in the Old Parliament House until the arrival of the Howard Government, reveals a Parliament House festooned with Union Jacks and red ensigns. There is not one blue ensign in cooee.

In fact, until the 1970s, the Union Jack, according to law, was considered the senior flag and was always required to be flown with and in a senior position to the Australian flag.

The British rejected the flag actually used by Australians in 1901. They selected for Australia a flag that was the result of a rigged competition that could only result in a British flag with a Southern Cross.

The competition-winning design was acceptable to the British as it broadly conformed to the pattern of British shipping ensigns – with a colonial badge of the Southern Cross and an extra symbol - a large star with six points to represent the federation of the six colonies.

The Federal Government was given permission to adopt the flag, which it did on February 20, 1903. For many years however, the general public was only permitted to use the red version of the Australian flag, with the blue version restricted to government use until March 15, 1941, when Prime Minister Bob Menzies gave permission for all Australians to use the current flag.

However, it was not officially adopted as the Australian national flag until April 14, 1954 when the Flags Act came into effect and only then did it begin to supersede the red ensign.

So why did Menzies discard the red ensign, under which so many Australians had fought and died, in favour of the current blue flag? The cynical view is this. In 1967, Menzies wrote in his book Afternoon Light, Some Memories of Men and Events:

In the year of my birth 1894 – Queen Victoria was on the throne of the United Kingdom and Ireland and the Dominions and Colonies beyond the Seas... For us, the maps of the world were patterned with great areas of red, at a time when red was a respectable colour.

Red was naturally respectable in the Union Jack. It seems clear Menzies′ arbitrary changing of the then popular red ensign to blue, without any consultation with the Australian people, was for blatant political purposes in his campaign against the ′red′ communist peril. Blue was and remains the Liberal colour.

The spurious argument Mr Scott continues to advance that you cannot change the Australian flag because so many Australians fought and died under it is therefore not only historically inaccurate, it is untrue: People don′t fight and die for flags, they fight for countries, families and beliefs.

But more importantly, would Minister Scott dare suggest that all those valiant Canadian, New Guinean and South African men and women who fought alongside our heroes in bygone wars, died for a lesser cause simply because their nations have subsequently changed their flags?

Australians were given a plebiscite for their national anthem in 1977 and a referendum on the republic in 1999. Australians have never had a choice in their flag.

The Australian flag must reflect who we are and what we wish to be. It must be unambiguously and unequivocally Australian. It must represent all of us equally. It must symbolise a sovereign, independent nation and it must be the flag we expect will fly over us for the next 100 years. It meets none of these criteria.

It remains a colonial flag symbolising subordination to Great Britain; a veritable British branch office flag, resembling a child still clutching at its mother′s breast.

In the 21st century, we deserve and can do much better.