Change is blowing in the wind, PM

WA Today, 29 January 2011.

Australia needs a better symbol of its nationhood.

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard may have hit a steely note while defending her government′s proposed flood levy this week, but when it comes to Australia′s flag debate she is, well, unflappable. After a chorus of eminent Australians, including last year′s Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry, Olympic champions Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould and environmentalist Tim Flannery marked Australia Day by calling for a new national flag, the Prime Minister′s response was a firm, if cheerful, ′"no′".

It was one of those rare times when she and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott are in accord. That is in itself not remarkable, since the flag debate crosses party lines. Nor, of course, is there any reason why Ms Gillard should not declare her preference for retaining a defaced British blue ensign as the national symbol. It was what she uttered in her next breath, however, that gave cause for objection.

"I′m a big advocate of the current Australian flag," Ms Gillard said. "We love it." We, Prime Minister? It may be assumed that as a notional - if not particularly enthusiastic - republican Ms Gillard was not using the royal plural. The ′′we′′ apparently indicates her belief that the overwhelming majority of Australians would refuse to part with the existing flag and, more insidiously, that she thinks the debate can be peremptorily closed. If ′′we all′′ love the flag, who could be so presumptuous as to advocate a change?

Many Australians certainly do love the existing flag, and virtually all of us honour it wherever it flies. But that is not the same as saying that all of us cherish it as something that must never be changed, or that we think there could be no better symbol of Australian nationhood in the 21st century. The Prime Minister surely knows that, and she should not attempt to stifle suggestions that it is time to make a change. Victorian Governor David de Kretser has rightly said that there is no urgent need to change. But the lack of urgency merely means that our livelihoods and security do not depend on the adoption of a new flag. It does not mean that the flag we present to the world does not matter, or that there are not good reasons to choose a better one.

The Governor also said a change might be desirable if Australia became a republic. This is surely vice-regal understatement. On the day Australia becomes a republic, as The Age believes it should, the inappropriateness of having the flag of another country in the hoist of our national flag would be evident even to the most ardent opponent of change. In heraldry, the hoist, or upper left quadrant, is a position of honour, expressing domination. The truth is that the present flag proclaims the imperial and colonial past, not the present reality of independent nationhood. And that is why it needs to change.

Both the advocates and the opponents of change have been evasive in the flag debate. The main group lobbying for change, Ausflag, and the Australian Republican Movement insist that their causes are separate. Formally speaking, they may be; but it is idle to pretend that calls for a republic and calls for a new flag do not appeal to a shared impulse, as the Governor has recognised. Opponents of change, too, take refuge in deception when they say that adopting a new flag would dishonour those who fought and died under the old one. Do we really believe that those who fell in Australia′s wars would resent shedding the symbols of a defunct empire? They were fighting for the nation.

Monarchist advocate David Flint has complained that advocates of change have no alternative flag to offer. This misses the point, for the aim of the flag debate is to encourage Australians to propose alternatives. And it should be recognised that choosing a new flag need not mean rejection of all tradition. Nor should it mean the incorporation of the Aboriginal flag into the national flag against the wishes of indigenous Australians, who have repeatedly stated that they want the red, black and yellow flag to retain its integrity and uniqueness as their own symbol. That will not happen if it is appropriated by non-indigenous people, just as the land has been.

The great majority of flags previously designed for use by Australians have a common motif, the image of the Southern Cross. Any new flag should display it too. The constellation is an appropriate unifying symbol for an inclusive, pluralist democracy; the stars, after all, shine on all of us equally, evoking a common destiny in this land. But the Southern Cross is also a symbol richly resonant in Australia′s history: it was both the chosen symbol of the Eureka miners and the addition to the blue ensign that gave Australia its present flag. Retention of the Southern Cross as the new flag′s defining image would be the best answer to those who fear that changing the national flag necessarily means the rejection of tradition.

Beyond that caveat, The Age does not wish to be prescriptive. Australians will argue about the divisions and colours of a new flag until a design is found that has sufficiently wide appeal. They should insist on the right to choose between the old and new flags in a plebiscite, as was done with the national anthem. And the Prime Minister should not seek to inhibit the process.