Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Thursday 12 December 1996

The Hon. Archibald (Arch) Bevis (Australian Labor Party) – Member for Brisbane (Qld)

I wish to enter the debate briefly. I want to make a number of points in relation to the matters that have been raised in the course of the debate on the Flags Amendment Bill. The question of national emblems is very important. The right of the people of the nation to determine those national emblems is equally important. That is why I am happy to support this bill, but I think it is important that people realise in that context that some of the historical anecdotes that have been raised today tend to be a little selective.

I support this bill. It gives the Australian people the right to vote on the flag, a right which they have never had before. In the history of this country, people have never before had the opportunity to vote to select the flag that we now fly as the national flag; nor, for that matter, to select any other flag that they might prefer in its place.

The member for McEwen (Mrs Bailey) referred to the competition that was run at the turn of the century and the fact that that competition endorsed two flags, a red and a blue ensign. She also referred to the fact that there were five different competitors who basically put forward the same design. One of the interesting things about that is that one of those five was not an Australian at all; he was a New Zealander, a Kiwi. That might explain why our two flags are so similar. As the shadow minister at the table, the member for Cunningham (Mr Martin), commented to me a little while ago, it has in fact happened in the past at Olympic ceremonies, when Australia has won the medal, that they have hoisted the New Zealand flag. That is a point of confusion which occurs not only at Olympic Games, I might add. Were we to take the New Zealand flag to a number of places in Australia and present it as the Australian flag, I suspect few would be keen enough to notice the difference.

Another interesting link that this flag has with New Zealand, arising from that early competition, is this question about a six- or a seven-pointed star. We refer to that as signifying the states and territories, but on 4 September 1901 the Argus reported:

Should it ever happen that the people of New Zealand change their mind and decide to enter the union, a very slight alteration would enable the flag still to stand. It will only be necessary to place a seven-pointed star instead of a six-pointed one beneath the Union Jack.

The simple fact is that the history of the flag and the history of the star identify that people who are not Australian were involved in its creation. In fact, the thought of a seven-pointed star at the time of its adoption in 1901 had to do with New Zealand′s involvement as part of the Commonwealth of Australia rather than any consideration that is now attributed to the seven-pointed star.

The other thing which I think is important to note is that in the course of the debate a good deal has been said about the flag having been proudly carried by Australian troops in battle, and that is indeed true. But, of course, it is not the only flag that Australian troops have carried into battle since Federation. During the First World War it was just as common for Australians to fight under the red ensign as it was to fight under the blue ensign. Indeed, it was just as common for them to fight under the British flag as it was to fight under either of those two Australian flags. Even in the Second World War, many Australian troops fighting in Australian formations fought not under the blue ensign but under the red ensign. My father, who served in New Guinea, served in a unit which fought under the red ensign. There is any number of ex-service personnel and records that will attest to that fact.

So why do we have the blue ensign today as our national flag? It is not because the people of Australia had a vote on it. They did not in 1901, and they have not since. The reason we have the Australian flag as a blue ensign is that a group of politicians in the Australian parliament in 1953 legislated to make it so. In other words, the high ground, principled position that I have heard so many members in this chamber, particularly from the government side, espouse about the terrible evil of allowing politicians to determine this matter has glossed over the fact that it was precisely that mechanism that arrived at the current flag as our national flag. The process that has been denigrated is precisely the process which was used in adopting the current flag.

I said at the outset that I support these changes, and I do, because I think it is important that the people of the country do have the right to determine these matters. But let us get some modicum of balance into this debate and let us understand that the flag we have today was never adopted by the Australian people. We are quite properly giving that authority to the Australian people today, but we need to be realistic and honest about the past and we need to be honest about the flag we have today. It is important, and it is an important symbol of our nation, but let us be honest in recounting on the record here in the parliament exactly how it came to be our national emblem. It was not adopted by the people; it was not arrived at by decision of Australians alone. The seven-pointed star was not something that was intended to accommodate territories; it was intended to accommodate New Zealand.

The simple fact is that the flag is confusing in other parts of the world when Australians winning a gold medal at the Olympics have stood under the New Zealand flag. As the country moves forward into its second century of nationhood, we as a nation might have a mature debate both about the real history of the development of our emblems but, more importantly, what it is we see for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren as the enduring emblem for them into the future of a unique Australia.