The debate on a new flag

The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 1998, p.12.

Editorial

The Prime Minister provided a convincing case for a new Australian flag when he expressed what he said was "one argument - and I acknowledge a strong one" in favour of an Australian republic: "That the symbolism of Australia sharing its legal head of state with a number of other nations has become an anachronism and is no longer appropriate for an Australian nation about to enter the 21st century." The symbolism of the Australian flag, with the Union Jack so prominently displayed on it, is an obvious anachronism. It is a continuing reflection of the 1950s mentality that was memorably described as "cultural cringe".

A new Australian flag is an inevitability. It fits in with the new millennium and the notion of re-creating our symbols and institutions so that they are relevant to our present and future rather than our past. It is a ludicrous concept, for instance, to envisage the flag-raising ceremonies at the Sydney Olympics with the current flag being raised for a victory by an Australian. People around the world will confuse our flag with the New Zealand flag. And if they don't, what will they make of a country that is so lacking in national consciousness that it is unable to produce a flag that proclaims its Australianness?

The former chairwoman of ATSIC, Lois O'Donoghue, during Sunday's launch of a campaign for a new Australian flag, made this significant statement: "Our existing flag symbolises a narrow slice of our history, including a significant period when the rights of Australia's indigenous peoples were overlooked." Diehards will seize this claim as somehow implying an antipathy to all things British. The former NSW Premier Nick Greiner makes the correct analysis, however, that a new flag is "not about denigrating the contribution that the United Kingdom has made to this country". It is all about responding to what Australia now is and will become.

The diehards maintain what may be called "a Union Jack view" of Australian history. Their main argument is that we should not get rid of the flag under which Australian men and women served and many died during two world wars. The history in this claim is false history. The red flag and not the blue flag was the standard national flag from 1901 until after World War II. In many instances, in fact, Australians fought under the British ensign. Ausflag, an organisation dedicated to the implementation of "Our Own Flag For The 2000 Olympics", has produced compelling evidence that Sir Robert Menzies changed the Australian flag in 1953 from red to blue because the colour red had connotations of communism.

So much for the unchanging nature of the current Australian flag. It is a fiction created by the diehards. A Herald-AGB McNair poll taken this time last year found that 66 per cent of voters favoured the incorporation of elements of the Aboriginal flag in a new Australian flag. Aboriginal leaders, though, are careful to point out that this is not a necessary element of a new Australian flag. What is important is that the new flag should be inclusive and relevant for as many Australians as possible. The action of Sir Robert Menzies in proclaiming a new Australian flag without any consultation of the Australian people must be shunned as well. Ausflag's initiative, therefore, deserves support. It has unveiled 100 new flags conceived by professional designers. The public will be encouraged to see and vote on the flags over the next eight months. And then the Federal Government should hold a plebiscite to establish the most popular choice.