New flag advocates see red over historical blue ensign

The Weekend Australian, 26-27 April 1997, p.9.

By Mike Steketee

The flag under which Australians fought and died was in many cases not the one seen yesterday in Anzac Day ceremonies around Australia. Often it was a different colour – red – or, in the navy and air force, a completely different, British flag.

Advocates of a new flag, led by the executive director of Ausflag, Mr Harold Scruby, argue that since the sanctity of the existing flag is based on a myth, it should not be used to resist change. He said the evidence was "overwhelming" that the blue Australian flag did not come into widespread use until it was proclaimed by the Menzies government in the Flags Act of 1953.

His examples include the Changi flag, a red ensign kept secretly by Australian prisoners of war. It was bought by the Victorian RSL president, Mr Bruce Ruxton, in 1989 for $25,000. The Breakwater Battery Museum at Port Kembla, NSW, operated by the State's Maritime Services Board, displays a red ensign with the sign "Original Australian National Flag... This is the flag our troops fought under in World Wars I and II." According to Carol Foley in her book, The Australian Flag, published last year, the RAAF used the British RAF flag in both world wars and the Australian navy fought under the British naval ensign until 1966.

Mr Scruby said: "The argument the RSL continues to put is that you cannot change the Australian flag because so many Australians fought and died under it. That is nonsense because it is historically inaccurate and because people don't fight and die for flags: they fight for countries. Would anyone in the RSL dare suggest that Canadians, New Guineans or South Africans who fought alongside us in bygone wars have died for a lesser cause because their nations have subsequently changed their flags?"

The president of the NSW branch of the Australian National Flag Association, Mr John Vaughan, said there were numerous photographs going back to World War I of blue Australian flags used in battles. In the famous World War I battle in which HMAS Sydney sank the German warship, the Emden, the Australian battle flag had been a large blue ensign. Mr Vaughan argued that prisoners had kept a number of flags at Changi and the "most precious", pieced together from collected scraps, were blue.

The national president of the RSL, Major-General William "Digger" James, said he regarded Mr Scruby's argument as spurious. The use of the British naval ensign on Australian ships was because they often served with the Royal Navy. "The changes to colour that have occurred are insignificant - it is the content that matters." Mr Scruby said that if the colour did not matter the RSL should not mind if the flag was changed to, say, green and gold. Mr James's response to that was that he would object to such a change because the blue flag had been accepted as our national flag.