Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Charles Wilson Tuckey (Liberal Party of Australia) – Member for O′Connor (WA)

I stand to support the Flags Amendment Bill 1996, which empowers the people of Australia to decide on the design and standard related to their flag. By most international standards, a flag is the most enduring symbol of nationhood. It surpasses individuals; it surpasses buildings. The lowering of one′s flag is known as the admission of defeat in a military sense. Let me say in my opening remarks that there are only two reasons I can identify for changing the design of one′s flag. The first is shame; the second is defeat. There are no other reasons why people should play around with our most enduring item of symbolic nationhood.

It is interesting to hear the remarks of the member for Chifley (Mr Price) because he complains about various aspects of the design of our flag. He makes the point, for instance, that he might like to introduce a little of the so-called - and I underline those words - Aboriginal flag as part of the design of a new flag. He quite correctly states that the Aborigines were the original inhabitants of this continent, this geographic area; but, furthermore, he infers that their cultural significance should be recognised in our flag.

I have made the point before that one of the great aberrations of the Aboriginal movement is their choosing to design a flag. A flag had no place in Aboriginal culture until the arrival of Europeans, and until quite recent times Aboriginal people never paraded, never fought and never did anything with a flag. It has been a clever device to attract the interest of the Europeans and those other sectors of Australia′s diverse community today where a flag, a banner and those sorts of trappings are institutionalised. There never was an Aboriginal flag at the tribal, state or nationhood level, and it is a prostitution of their culture to put so much concentration on it today. I find it quite repulsive to see two gentlemen, the Dodson brothers, come into this parliament wearing Akubra hats as evidence of their Aboriginality when Aboriginal people never ever wore hats.

It is not part of their culture. It is just a case of very smart people using symbolism that is associated with European culture to somehow create an image in the European mind of what is Aboriginal culture. They are entitled to their culture; they are entitled to respect it. I just suggest they practise it. To suggest that an Aboriginal flag is part of Aboriginal culture cannot be substantiated by history. They never had one, and that is a fact.

Of course, the more we deal with Aboriginal and our own circumstances by looking at the facts of history, the better off this country will be. We have been through an era in more recent times when, day after day, there has been a deliberate campaign of re-writing Australia′s history, refusing to recognise what occurred in history, refusing to recognise the brutality that was commonplace in years gone by, and refusing to recognise the tragedy of brutality that still exists in many parts of the world. It is plainly ridiculous.

The Australian flag is what it is - it was created at the birth of this nation as a whole. It was a design submitted to a competition and it was accepted by the people. It could have been pink with purple polka dots as far as I am concerned. Fortunately, it is not. The member for Chifley complained about its similarity to the New Zealand flag. That is an unfortunate accident of history. It is not a problem for me. The reality is they are two of the most attractively designed flags that exist around the world.

We are told that we should have something that is uniquely Australian. Such a flag got international recognition not too many years ago. I refer to the yellow boxing kangaroo on a green background. Would anybody want to replace our flag with that design? I doubt it. You could not say that it was not uniquely Australian; it was just a bit crass.

The reality is that when nations set out to redesign their flags - and I remind people to look outside this place on special occasions when flags are flown in great numbers - very few of them would reach the standards of attractiveness of the Australian flag in a fit. In fact, traditionally, other flags consist of a choice of two or three stripes of colour - no design, nothing.

The Canadians decided that they needed a unique identity so they chose a red flag with a white maple leaf in the middle of it which looks like a school kid drew it. Would anybody suggest that that flag is a much better design than the one they had before? In pure design terms, it is very unattractive and very pedestrian. I do not want to pick on the poor old Canadians, but it is an example of how these people can say there is always something better in the future.

My great problem with these attacks on the design of the flag is that they reflect an attack on our constitutional status - and I use those words advisedly, rather than the emotional reference to a republic and some sort of freedom we are supposed to get that we do not have now. But we ignore the risks, and I will come back to that issue.

The simple fact is that we now have an orchestrated campaign of attacks on our established institutions. It is part of a deliberate campaign to denigrate our history, to suggest that there was something wrong with us, that we should apologise to the world because we are here. I say that Australia is outstanding throughout the entire world in terms of the achievements of two centuries compared to those of tens of thousands of years. I refer to the achievements of two centuries in terms of the development of this country and, more particularly, the establishment of democratic institutions.

We can look with pride at 200 years, practically - certainly 150 - of absolute democracy. Traditionally, very few parts of the world today can claim that record. Why is it necessary to change the symbol that is totally associated with that democratic process? We have had absolute democracy from the day on which that design was approved. If we check what has happened in other parts of the world, some of those that have changed their flags change them every time they get democracy for a while. Does that improve them? Of course not. As I say, there is an undercurrent in all of this. It is a process of trying to tell Australians there is something wrong with them. I am pleased to say that when this bill is passed the message that politicians or these activists will get from the Australian people, should they choose to change the design of this flag, is that the Australian people do not concur with that view. They are proud of their achievements. They are anxious for the future of their children. In fact, they do not want us wasting our time on these peripheral issues. These are the fundamental points of what we are talking about.

When it comes to design, by international comparison, our flag is very attractive. You can tell me that it has `the Union Jack in the corner′. I have never perceived it to be the Union Jack. I have never perceived it to be some aspect of bending one knee and knuckling one′s forehead to another country because there is a design in the corner of our flag that has similarities to another flag.

Fundamentally, it consists of a number of religious crosses. Why not tell the Vatican to change their flag because some aspect of their religious status might be recognised? To me, it is part of the design of the flag. It represents no more, and it adds to the attractiveness of the flag because the colour scheme is brilliant and the reference to the stars is great. The member for Chifley apparently thinks that if we have the sun and the stars on the flag, things will be better.

The member for Chifley took that view because he now suffers from the myth that Aboriginals always had a flag, that they went out spearing each other carrying that flag with the sun on it, when of course they did not. They never had a flag. They are one of the few people, even indigenous, that did not practise within their culture the possession or recognition of a flag. Yet we have had debates all over the place about this and we have had athletes running around stadiums with something that is foreign to their culture.

So what do we have to do? We are told by the member for Chifley that we need something by the year 2000. I find no significance in the year 2000 that says we should change our established institutions - none whatsoever. It is another date and it happens to be when we will host the Olympic Games. When we want to make changes in this country, I do not care if they are made in 1996 or 2006.

I expect changes made in this parliament to add to the prosperity of our people in a sensible way. I expect those changes to address poverty. I expect those changes to lift our international profile by sporting achievement, by diplomatic achievement and by assisting Third World nations - not by changing our flag. If anybody thinks changing our flag will have a great international diplomatic effect, they are kidding themselves because the world could not careless.

It is like some of the other debates that are going on about trade, et cetera. There are three questions in international trade: how good, how soon and how much. Once they have been satisfied - unfortunately, Australia has some difficulty with that in this day and age - then of course the business is done.

I will take some of the time left to me to look at this process of denigration of our past which has been practised by so many. It has been done in politics. When I sat in the opposition benches I used to yell out, `Why didn′t you blame Billy Hughes when he was a Liberal?′ Of course, everything of the past was wrong, but only if you were a Liberal. The facts are there. A fair bit of Aboriginal history has been recorded over the last 200 years and it should be regarded as such, not as people now wish to redefine it. The same applies to the redesign of our flag.

All we are trying to do by this is say that there is something wrong with the people of the past. The people of the past successfully did something that this generation that wants to get into all of this second level debate, those of us sitting in this room at the moment, failed to do. As Australians, the people of the past all delivered a higher living standard to their children than their parents had delivered to them, and we stand here condemned as the first generation that has failed to do that because we got too greedy.

We wanted too much for ourselves and we have had a series of governments that were prepared to provide it on the grounds that it enhanced their chances of re-election - more particularly over the last 13 years when $80,000 million of our kids′ money was borrowed and spent to keep us happy. And we think we should be wasting time debating whether the flag that those great people before us designed has something wrong with it. Of course there is not.

The same applies when we get to this great push to change the image of Australia by calling ourselves a republic. To be quite honest, I do not care what you call us, provided the process does not interfere with the democratic protection that I have today.

Anybody who starts to fiddle with and change the Australian constitution raises one great difficulty, which has become another aspect of contemporary Australia. We make the changes and then the High Court tells us what we have done. If we interfere with our current structures in the constitution, there can be no guarantee to Australians that what they thought they were approving will in fact eventually be that.

The structures are quite simple. You and I know the process of changing our constitution, and this miracle of republicanism, even the minimalist process, requires substantial change to the constitution. Everybody is starting to worry about how much power this new person whom we would call El Presidente might get.

The reality is that you first pass a constitution amendment bill in this place. Anybody that suggests that the legislation passed in this place is always certain in its outcome should check the records of the High Court. So we pass a bill and we call a referendum. Then we have an obligation to advise the people of what the votes they cast will mean. In other words, what does our legislation mean? We do not get the High Court to write that letter; that is written by selected politicians.

The only time I have voted yes in a constitutional referendum was the one related to giving the Commonwealth power on Aboriginal matters. It is an interesting point because I did so on the advice I received under that process. I keep a copy to remind me never to vote yes again, because that advice told me that the Commonwealth had no intention of overriding the states in their responsibilities to Aboriginal people, that it was only seeking the power so that `together′ the Commonwealth and the states could go forward in advancing the welfare of Aboriginal people. They used words like `cooperation′.

What happened? When my vote was tested in the High Court, they told me that the politician had lied to me. He had misled me. There was no obligation on the Commonwealth to cooperate with state governments. There was no obligation on the Commonwealth to consult state governments. And they did not. We have seen the end point of that with this stupid native title legislation, which is costing millions of dollars in legal fees and is going nowhere. That is how it works.

The fact is that Australians get conned into this argument that we have got to be free of the United Kingdom - as though the prime ministers of Australia ring the Queen up every day and say, `Please, Miss, can I leave the room?′ They never do. There is no intrusion into our political processes and democratic structures emanating from our current arrangement.

Of course, when we look at the ultimate power of the `Crown′, which is the sacking of a parliament, under our constitution it is done by the Governor-General - they are the words used - not by the Queen. There are possibly one or two people in this place who still remember the last time a Governor-General did that. And he sacked the government that appointed him. The realities are that we have no intrusion.

I do not mind what you do about that, but I do mind when you set out to change the constitution and I have to put myself in the position of being like someone told to run across a freeway with a paper bag over their head - because I do not know what happens. I cannot be guaranteed that the legislation on which I will be asked to vote yes or no will in fact have the effect that has been promised by the politicians. The High Court traditionally, of course, will change that or tell us what their view is only after it has been enacted. They do not give advisory opinions.

So that is what we are confronted with on this whole issue. I repeat: it is all unnecessary, it is all costly; there are better ways to spend the money; there are better ways to spend our time in this parliament; and, worse, it is a campaign to denigrate our history, of which I am extremely proud.