Fewer salute when we try running up a new flag

Sun Herald, 30 January 2011.



© Sun Herald

Fewer salute when we try running up a new flag The political will to change our colours is not there, writes Tom Hyland. YOU MIGHT have missed it, but last week we entered a turning point in our national history. The historical moment, according to advocates of a new Australian flag, was a statement by 12 former Australians of the year calling for a new emblem to define the nation′s identity. It was a major breakthrough, said Harold Scruby, the founder of Ausflag, the change-the-flag lobby group which drafted the statement. Ausflag chairman Robert Webster declared: "This is a turning point in the flag debate and in our history." Launched on Australia Day, the statement was lost in a flurry of images of Australians waving and wearing the "old" flag, while Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott elbowed each other aside to declare their love and respect for the current ensign. If this was a turning point, it took us to a place we have been before. Last year the figurehead was TV personality Ray Martin, who declared it was time we "grew up" and abandoned an emblem dominated by the British Union Jack. This year it was 2010 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry who similarly declared it was time Australians grew up. "Right now, it′s a bit like a slowly maturing generation Y adolescent, a 27-year- old who just won′t leave home," Professor McGorry said. This was dejavu to observers of the national identity debate such as historian James Curran at the University of Sydney. "Every year," he said, "Ausflag claims an unprecedented development in the flag debate, and every year someone new has a crack at it." And every year, the flagship of th( change-the-flag campaign ran aground "because there is no ready made alternative model that either has conceptual inspiration or, perhaps more importantly, popular legitimacy", Dr Curran said. In other words, a lot of people like the current flag, and a lot dislike the alternatives that proponents of change periodically unfurl. Ralph Kelly keeps an even closer eye on the flag debate. He′s a vexillolo gist, he studies flags, and is spoke, man for the Flag Society of Australia. He is also a membe of Ausflag, but has no illusions about the task confronting supporters of change. He said the factors usually essential to a flag change were absent or in short supply in Australia. Flags usually change or emerge when a new country is formed. The latest flag charted by vexillolo Gists was Southern Sudan′s, following this month′s vote for independence. Other changes were brought about by war or revolution, with Iraq and Afghanistan recent examples. Then there was constitutional change, most recently in Burma where the regime imposed a new flag last October ahead of not-so-democratic elections the following month. In keeping with the junta′s reputation for wackiness (astrologers were consulted when the capital was relocated in 2005), the regime ordered that the old flags were to be taken down by someone born on a Tuesday and the new one raised by someone born on a Wednesday. In July last year, Malawi changed its flag following a controversial campaign by President Bingu wa Mutharika. The new flag replaced a rising sun with a fully risen one, to symbolise what the President argued was the progress made since independence. If the Malawi case was driven by a politician determined to make a strong statement about national identity, so was Canada′s flag change in 1965 - an example often used by Australia′s flag advocates. "Political vision is what drove the change in Canada," said Mr Kelly. "It was seen as part of the nation growing up, part of a political vision of a nation looking forward as a united country, joining people with French and British backgrounds. "In Canada′s example you had the political will, the ′vision thing′. That′s missing here, and that′s what Ausflag faces. There are no votes in it, and a lot against it." One problem, Mr Kelly said, was the abundance of alternative designs, put forward by Ausflag and others. None satisfy everyone, and the multiple designs make it hard for supporters of change to coalesce. As multiple alternative designs emerge, opinion polls show growing support for the current flag, A Morgan poll in April last year put support for retaining the existing flag at 69 per cent, up 16 per cent since February 1998. Only 24 per cent (down 17 per cent) wanted the Union Jack removed. One problem with alternatives was that they lack symbolism with "a deep rooted sense of the people" and therefore lack popular legitimacy, Dr Curran said. He would like to see the flag change. Like Paul Keating, he believed the current one was an ambiguous representation of Australia. But he noted a renewed sense of Australian patriotism which was closely attached to the flag. "It′s connected to Anzac and to people who feel they′ve been left out by the chill winds of multiculturalism."