Our colours of confusion

The Australian, 15 September 2000

By Mike Steketee

We may not have a president or a republic but we can still fly the flag of change.

How would we feel if the Olympic Games were opened tonight by the first president of the Australian republic? Sir William Deane, If you like. Proud, that′s how. How will we feel when the Governor-General gets hIs 10 seconds or so of fame? Proud but perhaps less so if some of the broadcasts beamed to the world explain, as they surely wifi, that he is the representative in Australia of Her Majesty the Queen of England.

It seems out of step with the dynamic, assertive, independent nation which is hosting the Olympics. Certainly to many overseas eyes.

Does it matter? The minority who are Australian monarchists will say that of course it does not and that if the majority of Australians had thought so they would have voted yes in the referendum 10 months ago (although technically, only under a Labor government would we have had a republic in time for the Olympics).

But that ignores the point that the majority of Australians are republicans and it was over the type of republic that the vote went down. And it overlooks that even monarchists were not willing to allow the Australian head of state to open the Games. That means she cannot be present at all for the biggest event outside war in the life of the nation she leads.

How would we feel if in the medals ceremonies during the Games overseas commentators mistook the Australian for the New Zealand flag? Outraged, though not half as much as the Kiwis if the situation were reversed.

It is easy to do. In 1984 Ottawa flew the New Zealand flag - that′s the one with the red stars - in honour of visiting prime minister Bob Hawke. Last year, no less an organisation than the Australian Monarchist League showed the New Zealand flag instead of Australia′s on its web site.

Most other populations who have blue flags with the Union Jack in the top left hand corner are British colonies. Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tuvalu are the only former colonies which do so.

So there is much to be said for a distinctive design to bring the symbolism in line with the reality. It is what the Canadians decided 35 years ago and traditionalists should be pleased that it did not open the floodgates to all manner of pestilence, not even a republic.

In Australia, becoming a republic would make a change in the flag more likely but, like they say about dalmatians and dogs, that does not make the opposite true: changing the flag would not necessarily bring on a republic. In fact, the defeat of the republic referendum has cleared the air for a resumption of the flag debate. That is what Ausfiag (whose board members include Cathy Freeman) is planning to do next year to coincide with the centenary of Federation, which is also when we started flying various versions of the Australian flag - red, blue and with different star configurations.

Changing the flag is a simpler process - at least in theory. It requires neither a referendum to change the Constitution nor an involved debate about the structure and stability of government. Instead, there would be a national plebiscite putting one or more designs up against the present.

But flag debates do arouse great passions, particularly among the generations who lived through wars (although many Australians fought under the Union Jack rather than the Australian ensign). And supporters of the present flag would take a leaf or 10 out of the monarchists′ book about how to run a big scare campaign. Indeed, many are the same people.

The challenge is finding a new design which wins over Australians. Opinion remains broadly divided between two symbols - the Southern Cross and the kangaroo.

The Games are a unifying event for Australians - as is already exemplified by the torch relay - and that extends to the flag. But in the longer run it is an inadequate symbol.

According to the Morgan Poll, the number of people saying we should have a new design for the Australian flag grew from 27 per cent to 52 per cent between 1979 and 1998. A Newspoll in 1994 found that 59 per cent of Olympic and Commonwealth games gold medallists favoured a new flag. There were more than 2500 entries in an Ausfiag design competition last year. Aboriginal leaders - even relatively conservative ones such as former ATSIC chairman Gatjll Djerrkura - have said consistently that a new flag without the Union Jack as a reminder of oppression and dispossession is a necessary part of true reconciliation.

A story broadcast on CNN on Thursday night focusing on the prominent place both of the Southern Cross and the Union Jack on the Australian flag started off by saying: "Australia is confused." Perhaps not but our symbols sure can be.

The republic, the flag, reconciliation, even our attitude to critical comments from UN committees - these are issues on which change cannot be forced. But we should keep moving forward.