Lowering our standards with a tired old flag

The Age, 27 December 2005

Jack of the Union Jack? Let′s choose a proper ensign for Australia.

For me, the nightmarish recent events in Cronulla have condensed into a recurring hallucination of red, white and blue. The national flag blurs across heads, biceps, marching standards and car bumpers, then suddenly morphs into red and black flashbacks of the Nuremberg rallies.

The flag in not too subtle a fashion was deployed to demarcate belonging and exclusion, owner and Auslander, "grew here" and "flew here" - in short, an Australian caste system.

The Prime Minister′s response was: "Look, I would never condemn people for being proud of the Australian flag." But can modern, progressive Australians continue to be proud of the ethnic chauvinism all too easily read from its iconography?

Today, do the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick adequately symbolise who we are, even where we are? Are we still down under in the British Antipodes, the lost white tribe of the Pacific? Or, has our post-World War II history meant that we have and continue to become something else? Indeed, a place where such colonial symbols fail to stir any primordial response in an ever-growing number of patriotic Australians.

Immigration levels in globalising post-industrial Australia are as high as they ever were during our industrialisation, and so our population continues to ever diversify. Already the Aussie Who′s Who includes names such as Lowy, Bracks, Malouf, Chang, Viduka and Ierodiaconou (go, Lydia !). Moreover, many indigenous Australians have fought and broken the shackles of colonial untouchability, becoming household names due to excellence in political, academic, cultural or sporting pursuits.

Our future requires sensitive pluralist management, but I fear the Howard Government has fostered just the opposite. Its creations that most readily come to mind are Pauline Hanson, queue-jumpers, detention camps, Un-Australians, mainstream Australia, and if you don′t like it here, then clear off.

I know many in the Government desire full independence from the Crown and a change of flag; some even maintain the Liberal vision of a harmonious, tolerant, multicultural Australia. However, such voices have been drowned out by the punitive reactionary discourses of the neo-conservatives. Culture wars, history wars, pride in the Union Jack, gay bashing, trade union bashing, Muslim bashing, these are the messages coming through the loudest and clearest. Messages of protect-what-you-have-got and if-it′s-not-broke-don′t-fix-it, not ones desiring inclusion and evolution towards a collective identity more representative of what we have become.

The events in Cronulla demonstrate that Australian society is at the crossroads. The present path offers the prospect of continuing turf wars, increased gang and police presence on the streets, racial vilification and the suffering of the innocent. On the other hand, intent to travel the opposing direction might be as easy as making the symbolic gesture of changing the flag. Right now, it would most certainly help to disarm the white supremacists.

My patriotism is coloured green and gold, and so I was most struck by their chromatic absence on the streets of Cronulla and the preponderance of the Anglo-Celtic tricolour. Not even an ironic ′80s green and gold Union Jack.

So again I ask, are we the proud progressive people who belong to the land of the wattle, or are we still merely a cringeful colonial backwater, where apartheid will grow ever louder as the message of our flag?

Like many Australians, I am in shock, very afraid and want leadership towards a better future.

But my most immediate fear is for my Sydney friends of Jewish, Cypriot and Indian antecedents. Will the bigots target them for being of Middle Eastern appearance? Even I look a bit swarthy over summer.

Dr Peter Maddock is a lecturer in anthropology at Monash University.