Britain's legacy flies in the face of public opinion

The Melbourne Age, 30 January 1997, p.A15.

It′s time the Prime Minister asked Australians what they want on their flag, argue Harold Scruby and Brendan Jones.

Harold Scruby is Executive Director of Ausflag and Brendan Jones has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Macquarie University.

The Australian Flag no longer fulfills its primary purpose of uniting Australians. We now hold the dubious honour of having the western world′s most unpopular and divisive incumbent national flag.

These are the inescapable conclusions from the recent opinion polls on the issue. Less than half of the population supports the flag - a figure unimaginable in Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the United States, or any other democratic developed nation.

The Union Jack on our flag was appropriate at the turn of the century, when Australia was little more than a colony of the British Empire. But Australia today is a sovereign, independent nation and the Empire has gone. It is now inappropriate that the flag of another nation should occupy one quarter - and the dominant position - of our national standard. This is the fundamental reason support for our flag is dwindling.

Simply put, the Union Jack is not an Australian symbol and is not an Australian flag. The Union Jack on our flag acts to exclude Australian symbolism and subverts the expression of our sovereignty. To Aborigines it is a symbol of oppression and genocide - the "butcher′s apron". Surely it is time Australian symbolism took priority over that of another nation.

Some suggest that removing the Union Jack from our flag would be denying our history. This is absurd. If this were the case, then only three nations in the world (Australia, New Zealand and Fiji) "show respect" for their history by having another nation′s flag on their own. How on earth do the other 200-odd countries in the world manage?

Surely we can represent our heritage in more inventive ways than stealing the flag of our former colonial master. And regardless of the design of the flag, our language, law, parliaments, monuments, history books and literature will record the great contributions of Britain to our society.

The other oft-used argument - that changing the flag would be an insult to Australian ex-servicemen - is similarly weak. It was the Red Ensign and the Union Jack under which Australians fought in WWI and WWII, the blue ensign was rarely seen. Our current blue ensign was adopted as the National flag in 1953. The Australian Naval Ensign was changed in 1967 and Australian Air Force Ensign was changed in 1949 and again in 1982. Ex-servicemen proudly march on Anzac Day under these flags rather than the ones they "fought under".

But what a spurious argument to suggest that our allies from Canada, South Africa and New Guinea fought for a lesser cause simply because they have subsequently changed their flags.

Nor would adopting a new flag mean we′ll be changing flags every few years. Canada embraced its maple leaf flag more than 30 years ago - and there is simply no move or support for changing it again. A better Australian flag, adopted by popular vote, would last all of our lifetimes and beyond.

The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, in promising to govern "for all of us" is only governing for "half of us" on this issue. This isn′t because his believes the flag is a low priority - his Government introduced amendments to the Flags Act 1953 in the same parliamentary sitting as the Federal Budget and Industrial Relations reforms.

These amendments seek to ensure the Australian flag can be changed only through a national vote. But what is the point of legislating for a plebiscite if the Government is not going to hold one? Promising to consult the people on the flag then denying them the opportunity to express an opinion is sham consultation of the worst kind.

Ausflag has always supported a plebiscite on the national flag, following the national anthem precedent of 1977. Indeed the current flag, unlike the anthem, was never adopted by popular vote but imposed by the Menzies Government.

For a flag plebiscite to be credible requires the best alternative designs to be judged against the incumbent. And the best alternative designs are most likely to appear through a Government sponsored process.

The Government should promote open and vigorous debate on the flag by appointing a multi-party Parliamentary Committee (following Canada′s example) to solicit and consider new designs, and ensure the Australian people have the best choice or choices on which to vote at a plebiscite, preferably at the next Federal election.

It is up to Mr Howard to show leadership, put aside his personal preference, and dare to ask Australians what they think would be the best flag for Australia for the next century and beyond.