Eureka flag: appropriated or not, it's appropriate

The Sunday Age, 16 December 2001, p.15.

The Eureka flag is being unfurled more often these days. Last week, as the Victorian secretary of the construction union, Martin Kingham, gave evidence to the royal commission on the building industry, the unionists who had assembled in Collins Place to declare their support for him displayed the flag on just about every available surface: on T-shirts, jackets and hard hats, as well as the odd banner or two. It is a defiant union symbol again, as it was in the heyday of Norm Gallagher and the Builders Labourers Federation. Which is why, of course, many people are determined that it should never be the national flag.

Those who think this way are careful not to disparage the flag itself. They accept that the story of the Eureka diggers is part of the story of Australian democracy, so they announce their opposition to making the diggers′ flag the national emblem in terms of regret. "Oh no," they will say, "it can never be the Australian flag now," implying that they think it should have been, and perhaps at some stage could have been. But not now. At this point the word "appropriated" may be introduced into the conversation, and uttered with an appropriate tone of indignation: "They′ve appropriated it!"

I doubt that the Eureka diggers would feel affronted by the appearance of their flag at trade union rallies. The argument favoured by those who think the flag has been appropriated usually begins with the observation that the typical digger of the 1850s was not a waged employee, like modern union members, but was either self-employed or worked in partnership with other diggers. They were what would now be called small businessmen. This, together with the fact that their chief grievances were the obligation to pay an extortionate licence fee and their lack of political representation, has caused some to argue that the true heirs of the diggers are to be found among the free-market lobbyists of the right, rather than among left-wing unionists. But this line is a form of appropriation too, of course.

Appropriation is what we do when we appeal to a tradition that gives meaning to, and thus legitimises, our own actions and beliefs. In the Australian political spectrum today, the Eureka tradition is most often appealed to by those on the left, and especially in the Labor movement, but the fact that they do so hardly means that the tradition and its best-known symbol have somehow become tainted for the nation as a whole. A more interesting question is why the low-tax, low government-spending crowd hasn′t gone in for some flag-waving of its own, if its members really believe the tradition is rightfully theirs. Perhaps they simply don′t have very rich historical imaginations. The free market is, after all, a thoroughly ahistorical ideal, and its buyers and sellers are pale abstractions, with little resemblance to the real human beings who make history.

But let′s leave the free marketeers contemplating their abstract, bloodless world and get back to the real one, where people communicate ideas and values in all sorts of ways, including the use of tangible symbols such as flags. The campaign to find a new Australian flag that is not a version of that unmistakably colonial symbol, the British blue ensign, has been a desultory one. It has limped along in the wake of the greater campaign to build an Australian republic, with which it must inevitably be associated despite the official denials by the leaders of both campaigns.

The flag competitions that have been held from time to time have rarely excited popular interest, because the entries have usually been conjured out of nowhere. Some are more interesting and visually appealing than others, and some even comply with the principles of that obscure craft vexillology. But if it is difficult to take the competition entries too seriously, it is because they do not connect our imaginations with a living tradition that we recognise as our own. The Eureka flag, however, will always speak to us of the values expressed in the charter of the Ballarat Reform League in 1854:

"It is the object of the League to place the power in the hands of responsible representatives of the people to frame wholesome laws and carry on an honest government. The people are the only legitimate source of all political power."

These are constitutive Australian values. Of course the diggers′ flag should be the national flag – and, next time you′re in Ballarat, visit the Stockade Centre and sign the petition asking Federal Parliament to adopt the Eureka flag as Australia′s.