Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Thursday 22 August 1996

Dr Brendan Nelson (Liberal Party of Australia) – Member for Bradfield (NSW)

I rise to speak on this Flags Amendment Bill 1996, and in doing so I suspect I will make some remarks which are provocative, at least to some members of the opposition and possibly even to the member for Reid (Mr Laurie Ferguson).

The bill seeks to entrench the Australian flag as being one of the people, for the people, by requiring any proposal to change the flag and the new possibilities to be submitted in each state and territory to the electors qualified to vote for the election of members of the House of Representatives. It will also ensure that the new flag, or one of the new flags, is chosen by a majority of all of the electors who are voting. The parliament, under this amendment bill, will prescribe the form and the manner for putting any of those proposals to the people and also any arrangements for adopting a new flag as the Australian national flag.

The previous government was consigned to the opposition benches for many reasons, but central to them was a perception that the then Prime Minister, Mr Keating, had a contemptuous disregard for our history and for those symbols of our national development. Whilst many decent Australians argue for a republic, the republican cause was done immeasurable damage, in my opinion, by a prime minister who eschewed the flag under which our ancestors fought and died, celebrated both achievement and failure, and rallied at times of both excitement and of despair.

I understand that in the previous parliament the flag was folded in this chamber to conceal the Union Jack. It was not flown from the prime ministerial car and, in some kind of misguided attempt to renounce our British ancestry, the leadership of the previous government seemed more intent on funding banal new flag design competitions than on addressing the economic malaise that had become so deeply entrenched in the national psyche.

One of the best and simple summaries of the circumstances under which we have laboured for the last decade or so was a bumper sticker I saw on a car in Melbourne three years ago, and it said, `I don′t care which flag I′m unemployed under.′ These days, however, we are more concerned about rectifying our parlous economic circumstances and creating a future other than that of long-term unemployment and crippling debt than financing competitions to design new flags.

I ask the question: if there is no respect at the top of society for our national institutions, how can we expect it to exist throughout broader society generally? During the recent Olympic Games I stopped in at my electorate office to turn on the television to watch Cathy Freeman′s race. One of the commentators said afterwards, `How can she carry a flag with that Union Jack on it?′ As the member for Reid has just said, there has been a lot of discussion about the apparent need for a new flag by 2000. More recently, of course, we have seen the New South Wales Premier discussing the notion of a new national anthem, which reminds me about the last refuge of rogues, to which the member for Reid referred.

For some Australians, understandably, our flag is a visual paradox. Many Australians, however, do not seem to understand what the purpose of a flag is. It is not a notice board to which we attach the latest evidence of the most recent fad that is sweeping the country. It is not a mirror of contemporary change or a statement of what we think our country is likely to be, or to become over the next 20 to 30 years. It is not a mirror reflecting our changing circumstances. Instead, it reflects the historical circumstances and values upon which our heritage is based. It reminds us of where we have been as we look to the future.

It would be a brave person who would suggest to the French that they change their flag because it is an outdated irrelevancy. Yet the white band on the French flag represents its monarchy, which has not existed in any real sense since 1870. Equally, I suspect, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole will not campaign in the forthcoming US presidential elections for the removal of those famous red stripes which characterise the American flag. Yet the origin of those stripes is the British Red Ensign, which flew over the American colonies.

With the exception of a single New Zealander, our flag was designed by Australians. It was chosen by Australians, and change, if change is to occur, must similarly be on the basis of a plebiscite to which this amendment gives effect.

I could not let the opportunity of this debate on this very important bill pass without making some remarks on another dimension which is as important as the configuration of the flag itself. Late in 1994 one of the good things the previous Prime Minister did was to support the Economic Planning Advisory Commission to convene a national strategies conference entitled `Shaping our future′.

It was intended to give Australians, and young people in particular, the opportunity to reflect on a national vision for Australia. Particularly in the third part of that report, there was a disturbing pessimism and fear of the future among many younger contributors. The relative balance of contributions from young people varied from hope and optimism on the one hand, to pessimism and despair on the other. In reflecting on the contributions of young people, it is clear, not only from these but from my own experiences, that strategic vision for Australia would have a catalytic role to play in generating greater optimism and a sense of purpose and belonging for the next generation. Our flag, as a very potent national symbol, is central to that process.

There are many comments made about the problems that young Australians face. But I believe the thematic currency for the problems of a growing minority of young people is our failure as a society to transmit a sense of belonging or meaningful purpose to them. In diminishing the importance of our flag and other potent national symbols and institutions, we are failing to give young Australians a confident perspective on who we are and how we see ourselves fitting into the world.

As I said recently in a letter to the Melbourne Age, hope is a fragile thing. It may be that the worst thing that has happened to young Australians over the last decade or so is not the disintegration of families nor the scarcity of jobs, as damaging as those things obviously are, but the fact that we have created a culture in Australia in which they feel that they have nothing other than themselves in which to believe. Thirty or 40 years ago, there was a mesh of values in this country. It sounds quaint now, but it was `God, king and country′. They were the things that held this society together. They were the things that, essentially, saw us through the ups and downs of the development of this country. Inevitably, these things change, as they must. But, in a superficial push to promote constitutional change, to marginalise the role of churches and to demean the value of community service and selflessness, along with the trivialising of the flag, I think we have not only created a vacuum but also sown the seeds for what might be described as a moral crisis, in a sense. It is deeply rooted in a higher priority that is placed these days on people′s rights rather than their responsibilities, and on value over values, and a preoccupation with the here and now rather than a respect for the past and any kind of attempt to plan in a meaningful sense for the future.

The problem is not that young people have not learned our values; it is that they have. In many ways, Australia under the previous government, and under the then Prime Minister in particular, had become an `anything goes′ kind of society: a people of cultural aimlessness. I think we are becoming increasingly tethered to a value system that is very much based on materialism.

Leadership is still best done by example. The member for Reid, in putting the support of the opposition to this amendment bill, was referring constantly to polls. As parliamentarians and as politicians, our job is not just to look at polls. Our job is not just to see what percentage of people in the community support certain propositions or otherwise. At times, it requires us to lead. It is populist stuff to simply grab a poll and say enthusiastically that a certain proportion of the community - and young people, in particular - might support a change of the flag or anything else. But there comes a time when you actually have to stand up and lead people to where, in their best interests, they need to go.

I think the much more challenging duty for us is to instil in each generation the values, the sacrifices and the aspirations of our ancestors, which made the country what it is. A nation′s flag is about generational values - values transferred from one age and one generation to the next. It reflects where we have been, our historical development and our foundation aspirations.

I know this sounds rather like a paradox, but problems will rarely be solved by politicians. I think our attempts to change our flag at different times represented, in many cases, nothing other than crude attempts to distract us from the big issues. I also considered them, at times, to be a form of cultural abuse, removing from young people the fundamental means for us to define who we are and what we believe. It is only in an environment where there is respect for and confidence in our national symbols and institutions, especially among leaders, that young generations are able to have any chance of developing a positive, confident and optimistic outlook on life.

I am 38 years of age and I suspect that many people in my generation probably do not care too much about whether we become a republic or not. That is a separate issue, as I said earlier. Perhaps we feel a bit more strongly about the flag.

I recall that on 24 April 1993, the day before Anzac Day, I was on a plane from Melbourne to Sydney. I read an article such as I usually do at that time of year, a profile piece of a then 99-year-old man who had landed on the beaches at Gallipoli. Even with the push for euthanasia he said, `I′m glad I′ll be dead soon, because I don′t want to be alive when Australia becomes a republic and the flag changes.′ That struck me; it was there in the back of my mind.

About a week later I turned on ABC television in a Brisbane hotel room and I saw the young persons′ program Attitudes, which was an avant-garde approach to youth issues but has subsequently been scrapped. Young people of 17, 18 and 19 years of age were being asked whether they thought Australia should become a republic. They all enthusiastically said yes, we should become one. Then they were asked to name one minister in the then federal government. Only a half could do that, and only a quarter of that half could name a second. Not one of them knew what the Australian constitution was, what it does, who designed it.

As I watched that I thought, `I′ve never heard Malcolm Turnbull say that he would rather be dead if we don′t have an Australian head of state by the turn of the century. I′ve never heard anyone say that they would rather be dead if we don′t change our flag.′ But I do know that there is a generation of Australians for whom what we have means much more than I will ever understand - people whose sacrifices actually made this country what it is and whose efforts, I think, all too often we take for granted. While ever there is still very much a section of our community that feels that way, I feel quite reluctant to embrace change, whether it be for the republic or not and most certainly as far as our flag is concerned.

I suppose that, in the same way as our children grow up and leave home, there will be eventually some kind of change in Australia - hopefully, in my opinion, a superficial one - which reinforces the independence which we already have and unfortunately take for granted. But I remember that after one of my National Press Club addresses I received a letter from a man who described himself as a monarchist. He said that he agreed that eventually Australia might embrace some kind of constitutional change. He went on to argue that he would die before the flag was changed, and I share that latter sentiment. But, he said, `I just want my views to be respected and heard.′

If there are people on the opposition benches who are going through the reasons why they are now in opposition - in my case, I hope they will be there for some time - I can tell them that one of those reasons, one about which they should not be dismissive, is that people in Australia felt very much that they were not being heard. They felt that, if they did not have a view which was fashionably attached to some of the more avant-garde things said by the then Prime Minister, Mr Keating, there was no place for them. There needs to be a place for all of us.

I come back to the question of young people. If you were a 16- or a 17-year-old person growing up in Australia today - sure, I am ancient in the views of many of those people - you would have to ask yourself, `What do we believe as a country?′ What are our cultural values? What is our identity? How do you feel when you see someone commentating on the Olympic Games, making unsettling remarks about our flag? What sorts of things do we respect? As I said earlier, if there is no respect at the top of society for our institutions and, most importantly, our most potent national symbol, how can we expect young people and those who are not so young to similarly respect them?

This amendment bill places the decision for any changes to our flag firmly in the hands of the Australian people. That is where it rightly belongs. Although, as the honourable member for Reid said, a subsequent government may choose to ignore this bill when enacted, to do so would be considered by most Australians an act for which a significant political price would be paid.

In her excellent book, written in 1996 and entitled The Australian Flag: Colonial Relic or Contemporary Icon? – to which the honourable member for Reid (Mr Laurie Ferguson) referred – Carol Foley says:

A national flag is symbolic of the cohesion which exists between those individuals and communities and represents the collective ethic which has developed over time. Thus, we need to take care that we do not lose sight of the essence of the nation in the question to satisfy and recognise particular groups within it.

In conclusion, I realise that some of the remarks I have made are provocative, to some people at least. I certainly understand that the issue of the flag and of this amendment bill in particular are separate issues from that of the republic. I know my friend and colleague from North Sydney, whilst a devout republican, is as committed to the flag as any Australian that I know. Those two issues need to be separated.

Those who, whether it be here or in the community, try to diminish the importance of the flag and the importance of removing politicians from decisions about its future, fiddle not only with the configuration and design of that flag but they very much interfere with the development of the values and ideals of young people. I would like to hear much more from both our Prime Minister – who already does it a great deal - and the Leader of the Opposition about respect and admiration for those people and for the nation that stood behind the development of the flag. It should be accorded the respect that it deserves. I cannot emphasise the point enough: if we do not respect it, how can we expect others in society to similarly do so?