Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Colin Hollis (Australian Labor Party) – Member for Throsby (NSW)

I was not going to contribute to this debate because, as I was in the chair, I could not interject and had to remain unbiased. But I have changed my mind. I wonder whether the seven-year-old mentioned by the honourable member for Wide Bay (Mr Truss) will think the same when he is 17 or 27 or 57. I must say that it was a very profound statement for a seven-year-old, but I wonder whether he is in a time warp and will think the same all his life or whether he will change his mind.

I am always terribly suspicious of people who wrap themselves in the flag or are flag wavers. I have been a member of parliament for 13 years. I have presented as many flags as anyone else in this chamber. I am always proud to present the flag. I present it to schools, to scout groups, to sporting organisations and many others. I, like others, present it to students, rotary students and exchange students going overseas. I always present the flag, and I am always pleased to present the flag. So make no mistake about that. I present as many flags as anyone else. Incidentally, in my electorate office I have the Australian flag flying in the foyer. It will remain flying there whilst ever I am a member of parliament and whilst ever it is the flag of this country.

I am a little surprised that this debate is taking place, and I am a little surprised that it is taking place in this chamber, because this side of the House has argued for other debates to take place in this chamber and they have not been permitted. The euthanasia debate, for example, was held in the Main Committee. I do not refer to it, as some people do, as side show alley. In fact, that term offends me greatly. I wish people would not refer to it in those terms because I do not regard it as side show alley. Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, as someone who presides over that chamber from time to time, I do not regard the procedures there as any way short of the procedures here.

That chamber allows a wide-ranging debate for people who want to speak. I have seen the speakers list on this debate. It is a huge speakers list, and I would have thought that it would have been appropriate to have had this debate in the second chamber. But that was not to be. I just wonder, though, when we have had such important issues that we have been considering in the parliament over these last few days as we are winding up the parliamentary year, why it was felt necessary that this had become such an important issue to take up the time of the parliament to debate.

I have one small difficulty with the current flag. I particularly like the Southern Cross there, but I do not like the idea of our flag of Australia having the symbol of a foreign country in the corner of it. That might not come as much of a surprise to many people. Take that symbol of another country out of our flag and I am quite happy with the Australian flag. I do not necessarily want that symbol replaced with any other symbol. I am quite happy for the flag – as it flies in this chamber – to have just the Southern Cross on it. I think that would symbolise Australia. In fact, it would symbolise Australia much more than the current flag does.

I would suggest that if you go out and talk to people in the street and you are carrying a New Zealand flag and an Australian flag - all these flag wavers and people who are wrapping themselves in the flag - people would have a great deal of difficulty telling the difference between the Australian flag and the New Zealand flag. In fact, recently, I was at an international conference – there was a New Zealand delegate and an Australian delegate there - and they had the New Zealand flag in front of me and the Australian flag in front of the New Zealand delegate. I discreetly said to the person there, "If you do not want to create an incident, I suggest you switch these two flags," which they very quickly did and for which they apologised profusely and told me that they did not know the difference. Obviously, they did not know the difference.

As many people have said, the flag is important to a nation. It does symbolise a nation. It does not symbolise a nation to me when you have such a large part of it taken up with the flag of another country. I strongly reject the suggestion that those of us who do not kowtow to a foreign power are somehow less loyal or less Australian or are somehow more suspect than those who wrap themselves in the flag and come in here. I cannot believe some of the things that have been said during this debate. I always reject questions such as who is more loyal – it seems to me that we get the argument somehow confused – but it seems to me that those who want their own distinct flag are, if you want to use the criterion of loyalty, more loyal than the others.

Other countries have gone through this debate. The interesting thing about Australia is that we think if we change our flag the world is going to stop and Australia will never be the same. Canada went through this debate. It was a very bitter debate. Canada has much greater divisions within it than this country has. It is a country that has genuine divisions in it and they went through this debate. Those of British descent wanted to keep the flag as it was, symbolising Britain the mother country, and the Canadians came up with a distinctly Canadian flag that is known throughout the world as the flag of Canada. You see the Canadian flag on the rucksacks of backpackers. If you are driving through Europe and you see a group of hitchhikers with a Union Jack, you wonder whether they are Australians, New Zealanders or British.

There has been great debate about how we choose a flag. The honourable member for Cowan (Mr Richard Evans) and I, among others, were in South Africa. The honourable member for Cowan and I went to the archives in Johannesburg in South Africa. While we were there, they took us to the heraldry on the top floor and we were introduced to the person who designed the new South African flag.

They said that they had held a competition and that there had been a great debate. Of course, it was a very emotive time in the history of South Africa. The person who designed the flag actually designed it over the weekend. The new South African flag - it is not so new now – really does symbolise the new nation, the post-apartheid nation of South Africa. I do not know, but I think that competitions and things like that could be quite divisive if you had them.

Some members in their speeches have said that the former Prime Minister is said not to have liked the current Australian flag. I do not know if he did or if he did not, but I know that if we on this side of the House ever raised the question of a republic we were always told that we were diverting the nation′s attention away from the real issues. I would suggest to those opposite that this debate today - given some of the issues that Australia is facing today and some of the issues we have been debating in this parliament over the last week - is a little bit of a diversionary tactic.

I sometimes wonder why those who are so keen to keep the current flag always try to silence those who want a debate on it. They are always trying to impose their views on us. Why should we accept that there will be no change to the Australian flag? As I said before, I would suggest that I am as loyal as anyone in this chamber. I give the flag the respect it deserves. In the little speeches I make to schools, I always make the point that this is the flag of Australia and, as such, it deserves respect. It symbolises the nation and it deserves respect. I always make sure I say that. But I always say that there should be a debate on whether the flag today actually symbolises the nation. So I will be very pleased when we do change the flag.

In this parliament I represent one of the most diverse electorates in Australia. It is an area that has changed greatly over the years. We in Australia are changing and we should have a flag that is much more relevant to Australia.

The member for Wide Bay (Mr Truss) said that the flag represented a chronicle of 200 years of immigration. Sure, we have had 200 years of immigration to this country and I see nothing wrong with having a flag to symbolise that 200 years of immigration. But why select one part of the world where migrants come from? Many members of this chamber can trace their ancestries back not to Britain but to Greece, Italy and other parts of the world. Why do we select one part of the world and say that this symbolises migration to Australia?

The other point I want to make very strongly is that I am happy to have a referendum on the issue if people want to change the flag. I believe there is nothing wrong in holding a referendum on it. I am not sure that it would get through, given the current climate, because there would be quite a divisive debate, which I think would be unfortunate. In this country, unless a question is taken out of the political arena and there is bipartisan support on it, very few referendums get through.

I am amazed that we have been given so much time for debate on the flag in this House. Many of us want to take a look at the history. I think we should take a look at our history. The flag that we have today has symbolised much. It has symbolised the past for Australia. It is true that we have evolved from a British colony into the modern nation that we are today. But that is really part of history. Why would we want to be in a time warp? Why are you saying we must always keep in that area? Surely it is time we had a new flag that more adequately represented Australia as it is today.

I also wonder why we cannot have a proper debate on the flag. Those who support the current flag try to smear those who take a different point of view. It is time that we had a proper debate on the flag. As far as I am concerned, it is time that we had a new flag. This flag has served us well. It has symbolised much. It represents much. It should now be placed in the museum with other relics of our past. We should have a new flag that more adequately reflects Australia.

I will continue to give the flag we have proper honour while it is our flag, as I always do. It will continue to fly in my electorate office.

I believe that it should be consigned to a museum. Those who still feel so keen about it can go and wrap themselves in it and pay homage to it in a museum. It is time that we put it in a museum and had a new flag that more adequately symbolises Australia in its modern age and what we stand for today, not what we stood for 100 years ago. It is a different society today which deserves a different flag, a new flag.