Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

David Hawker (Liberal Party of Australia) – Member for Wannon (Vic)

I am delighted to join in the debate and support the Flags Amendment Bill. I believe it is a bill that is long overdue. It has many things going for it but the most important one is, as the previous speaker, the member for Moncrieff (Mrs Sullivan) has said, that it enshrines the right of the Australian people to choose their own flag and, also, for them to have a say on any decision on the flag. What it really does is to facilitate the parliament being able to put to the people a form for either keeping or wanting to change the flag – which I too believe, like the previous speaker, is very unlikely, certainly in the next few decades.

Another reason that I am very keen to support this bill is that I have been a very staunch supporter of the Australian flag not only since I have been a member of parliament but long before that. I have always had great delight in presenting Australian flags, within my electorate, to organisations that qualify for the Australian flag and also to students who are going overseas on exchange programs. I think the Australian flag is a marvellous symbol for people to take overseas and to present to their hosts as a reminder of their visit and, at the same time, it is a reminder of the fact that they are ambassadors for Australia. What better way to remind people of that than to present an Australian flag.

I can confidently say that I have presented over a thousand flags within the electorate of Wannon since I have been the member. Furthermore, I have presented many petitions to this parliament, and the number of signatures on those petitions would exceed 10,000. I have had a close association with the flag both within my electorate - and I have been very proud to do so - and also within the parliament itself.

On three separate occasions I have presented a private member′s bill on exactly the same matter as this bill: back in 1990, in 1991 and again in 1992. On those three occasions I put a challenge to the previous Labor government to accept a vote on that private member′s bill, yet they never would. I think it is to their eternal shame that they were not sufficiently proud of the Australian flag to be able to enshrine this bill in legislation in this parliament.

We are now very fortunate that we have a government that is prepared to stand up so firmly for the Australian flag and to put this bill to the parliament. It is very important to remind ourselves that it is not just a question of politicians and members of parliament when it comes to choosing the Australian flag. That decision rightly belongs with the people of Australia.

One of the interesting things when I presented that private member′s bill on those three separate occasions is that I was sure there were many members of the then government, the Labor Party, who privately agreed with what was being proposed but, unfortunately, because of their then leaders, they were always being forced to toe the line. I particularly refer to the former Prime Minister, Mr Keating, who seemed to have a pathological hatred for the Australian flag; in fact, for everything that was symbolic of the achievements of our nation.

Who could forget his performance when he went to Indonesia in 1992 and the way he disparaged our flag when he was overseas? As a former foreign minister and Governor-General, Mr Hayden, once said, "The one thing you don′t do when you go overseas is bag your own country." Unfortunately, his former colleague obviously did not extend that as far as the Australian flag.

One was often cynical enough to think that the former Prime Minister used questioning the Australian flag as a diversionary tactic when Australia got into so much trouble with the recession that we `had to have′. He obviously thought that by distracting the attention of people with an argument about the Australian flag he would somehow take the spotlight off his own shortcomings and the shortcomings of his time as Treasurer and, more recently, as Prime Minister. Clearly, it got out of control and I believe that rightly the Australian people have continued to reject the comments and thoughts of the former Prime Minister.

Now I think there will be widespread support right throughout the community for this bill. Unlike when Labor was in government, the parliament is going to be able to have a vote on this bill and I would be very confident of the outcome. I do find it rather curious, though, that until as recently as 1988 the Labor Party had it on its platform that it would abolish the current flag, then suddenly - I guess because electoral pressures started to get a bit stronger - it slipped off the platform.

Yet for a long time it was also a part of the symbol of the Australian Labor Party so it seemed they often wanted to have two bob each way by, on the one hand bagging the Australian flag but, on the other hand, trying to confuse the Australian public by using the Australian flag as part of their logo. It is also interesting to note the comments of the current Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Gareth Evans) who in 1981 in the Senate had a little number to say about the Australian flag. He said:

...we can do rather better than the present undistinguished and undistinctive bit of cloth which we have inherited from our colonial past and which manifestly does not set anybody′s pulse racing in the community at large except, perhaps, the occasional Returned Services League blimp or a proportion of the tory back bench opposite.

What it shows is just how out of touch he was even then with the sentiments of the Australian people. No wonder he is in opposition, as he was then. This really is an insult to the Australian people but it also shows the shame of this man and his party on their lack of understanding of the history of Australia. It is also an enormous insult to those who served their nation overseas under the Australian flag; who were proud to serve their nation under the Australian flag; and who saw that as the symbol of why their were prepared to go and serve Australia overseas, often in great hardship - and sometimes they paid the supreme price for doing that.

However, it does show that the Labor Party of today is very different from the Labor Party of the past. If we go back to 1953 when the Flags Act was introduced by then Prime Minister Menzies, the leader of the Labor Party, Arthur Calwell, said:

every nation needs a symbol of its unity... It is true that a flag is merely a piece of bunting, but it is also true that it is something round which the whole nation can be rallied... Now that we have a national flag, let us give it pre-eminence on all occasions.

That shows just how different the Australian Labor Party was in those days; how in touch it was then and how out of touch it has become in more recent times. At the time the Australian flag was first created, just after we became a Commonwealth, it was inaugurated under a very simple but very telling slogan: one people; one destiny; one flag. I think that is as true today as it was back at the time of Federation.

It is interesting to go back through a little bit of history of flags in Australia. I know there has been some discussion already but I would like to add a little bit more to it. We have to go right back to 1642 when Abel Tasman discovered Van Diemen′s Land to find when the first flag was brought to Australia. Of course, it was a Dutch flag and it was taken onto Australian soil through the surf by someone swimming. Then on 29 April 1770, some 130 years later, Captain Cook raised the Union Jack at Botany Bay and on 22 August in that same year he again raised the flag at Cape York and claimed the east coast in the name of King George III. But as Britain did not take formal possession of Australia until 1788 the French had time to make some territorial claims and did this by raising a French flag at Shark Bay in Western Australia in 1773. I think that shows just how symbolic flags were seen to be then and, I believe, are still seen to be today.

The first flag that was designed and made in Australia was created from a silk wedding dress and it was flown by the bride′s husband at Richmond in New South Wales back in 1806. It was inspired by the news of Nelson′s victory in 1805. As has already been said, the current flag evolved from a competition held by the first Australian government jointly with a magazine called the Review of Reviews back in 1901. The prize money, a total of £200, came partly from the government which offered £75; partly from the Review of Reviews which also offered £75; and - because they were a bit short - £50 from the Havelock Tobacco Company. Times have changed.

As has been mentioned there were more than 32,000 designs submitted, not only from Australia but also from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, Malta, India, China, the United States and the Shetland Islands. The winners were chosen - five different people with five different designs - and they shared that prize money. In 1909 there was a slight change when the federation star was increased from six points to seven points to include the territories.

It is also important to look at a little bit of the flag, just to see how significant each part of the flag is. If we look in the canton, or the first quarter, we see the Union Jack. Some might say, `What is the role of the Union Jack there today?′ It is worth reminding the House why it is there and what the Union Jack stands for because it stands for independence and it also stands as a symbol of unity because the Union Jack is made up of three parts: the cross of St George, for the English heritage; the cross of St Andrew, for the Scottish heritage; and the Psalter of St Patrick, for the Irish heritage which goes into the Union Jack.

It goes much further than that because the Union Jack tells us not only a lot about our history but also a lot about much of our origins: our Westminster system of democracy and of democracy itself; our independent judiciary; much of our culture and many of our traditions; and, probably most significantly, our language, the English language. So the Union Jack has a very significant role on the flag even today.

There is also the Federation Star, which symbolises the coming together of the six colonies to become the six states, with the seventh point added to represent the territories. Then there is the Southern Cross, which we are very proud to have there. We see that very much as showing our geographical position in the world, being the land of the Southern Cross.

I would like to debunk some of the arguments we hear when people talk about changing the Australian flag. Our flag is not only a great symbol of national unity, it is also an icon that reminds us of the great strengths of the democracy we have inherited, a symbol of so much of our heritage, and it represents the democratic processes of our Founding Fathers, as described earlier. We talk about our role in the Asian region today, but we are still the land of the Southern Cross; it still symbolises where we are in this region, not just in the whole world.

When we talk about history and where we fit in it is worth being reminded of the words of a couple of very wise people who have commented in the past on the importance of recognising one′s history. The Roman statesman Cicero said:

Not to know what happened before you were born is always to be a child.

I think that reflects the importance of the Australian flag and the fact that it reminds us of events that took place before we born. A more recent great man, Edmund Burke, said:

People will not look forward to posterity who never looked back to their ancestors.

Like most members in this House, and like most Australians, I am very proud of our history. No country has a history devoid of tragedy but few countries have a history as proud as ours.

I am proud of the traditions we have inherited from the United Kingdom - constitutional government, English common law, trial by jury and the Christian concepts of behaviour, of right and wrong. To disown the flag is to deny that heritage. I think it behoves all of us to lead the nation on this issue, particularly since we must look at bringing up the next generation to understand what is so important in our heritage and history.

It is with great pride that I stand here today, having sponsored similar bills back in 1990, 1991 and 1992. As someone who very much represents the views of his electorate and the views of the wider Australian community, I support this bill. It is very timely and very important because it will allow the parliament to enshrine the right of all Australians to have a say in any change that might occur to the flag of Australia.

The flag is a very important and integral part of this nation and to deny the people a say in keeping it would be very remiss of the parliament. Passing this bill would ensure that the people of Australia will continue to have a say in this very important symbol of our nation, the Australian flag.