No one will salute it if you don't run it up the flagpole

The Australian, 26 January 2000, p.13.

By Harold Scruby
Harold Scruby is the executive director of Ausflag Ltd.

Changing the flag and becoming a republic have very similar problems: settling on the right model

A lot can be learned by the flag movement from the recent referendum. Just like the republican options of appoint or elect, Australians are clearly wedged between two symbols - the Southern Cross and the kangaroo.

As the referendum proved, we are an extremely conservative nation. The retention of the Southern Cross is widely supported, particularly because of its historical connotations. Yet it is not readily recognisable and belongs to the entire southern hemisphere. It also appears on four other national flags.

The kangaroo is uniquely Australian and instantly recognisable by the rest of the world. It appears on the penny, the coat of arms, the Air Force ensign and Qantas, yet a significant number of Australians, particularly those from the bush, feel passionate that it has no place on our flag.

Excluding New Zealand and Fiji, all the other Commonwealth nations (monarchies and republics alike), numbering over 50, have changed their flags to properly represent their independence and maturity.

It is quite bizarre that in the third millennium, this sophisticated, intelligent, multicultural island continent still embraces a flag that the rest of the world sees as representing some sort of subordinate British branch office. A colonial relic reflecting a child still clinging desperately to its mother′s breast.

Furthermore, how can we honestly boast that we have achieved reconciliation with our indigenous people, when the symbol, which to them represents oppression, genocide and invasion, still dominates our flag?

Australia will not become a republic until we can devise a method of allowing the people to elect their head of state. The more politicians try to convince us that they should be entrusted with this responsibility, the more the people will vote no. The further the states are from Canberra, the more likely this will be.

And why would anyone who believes in democracy and the critical importance of leadership in politics ever permit the Canberra Club to choose both the head of state and the prime minister?

It is also unlikely we will become a republic until we can come to terms with removing the Jack from our flag. We must symbolically and psychologically grow up. Well before establishing the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull was a director of Ausflag. After he left us, we wrote to him in August 1993:

"On May 11, 1993, The Bulletin published the results of its AGB McNair Poll. Under the question: ′If Australia were to become a republic, who would you prefer to elect the president?′ 83 per cent said ′the people′ and 8 per cent said ′the parliament′. Put simply, the populists outnumber the minimalists by greater than 10 to one.

"The conservatives will see this as an opportunity to use Machiavelli′s first law of politics; ′divide and rule′. They will simply position the minimalists against those who want a popularly elected president.

"[You“ run the risk of being perceived as the politicians′ voice, rather than the voice of the people. Unless the republic committee can come forward with a simple system by which the president can be popularly elected, you may as well give up now. There is no way that these figures can be reversed by or before 2001. Clearly, Australians do not wish to give any more power to the politicians. Any referendum which purports to do so in Australia has been and will continue to be doomed to failure."

While not wishing to denigrate Turnbull′s valiant efforts in raising awareness and bringing the republican issue to a vote, it was he who was primarily responsible for its defeat. Turnbull chose to woo the politicians and the elite. He forgot the people.

Blaming the Prime Minister was wrong. While personally disagreeing with his views, Howard delivered what he promised: a Republican Convention and a referendum before the end of 1999. He also permitted all members of his Government unfettered rights to campaign the way they wished. Rights not granted by Kim Beazley upon his confreres.

The majority of Australians want both a republic and our own flag. Many of those who oppose a new flag do so on the grounds that they do not like the designs presented thus far. This response will remain largely inchoate until a design of strong appeal is available.

To gain acceptance, both the republican model and the flag design must reflect the wishes of the majority of Australians. Ausflag must learn from the ARM′s mistakes. We must listen to the people.