Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Thursday 12 December 1996

Frances (Fran) Bailey (Liberal Party of Australia) – Member for McEwen (Vic)

I rise in support of the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Flags Act 1953 to ensure that the current Australian national flag can only be replaced if a majority of voters in all states and territories agree. This bill seeks to protect Australia′s greatest national symbol, our national flag. It means that no government can legislate to replace the flag without first receiving approval from the Australian public, voting at a referendum or a plebiscite.

This is the way it should be, for the government does not own the flag – it belongs to the people of Australia. It is a symbol of who we are and where we have come from. It is the one thing that unites us all as Australians and, therefore, we should all have a say in whether it should be changed.

Before Federation, the Union Jack was the official flag of the six Australian colonies. However, with Federation, a new nation was born. With it came the urgent need for a new emblem to represent that nation. Shortly before the opening of the first parliament in 1901, the Commonwealth government decided to hold a competition to design two flags - one for official and naval purposes and the other for merchant ships.

This competition was run in conjunction with one conducted by a newspaper called the Review of Reviews. The competition attracted more than 32,000 entries from throughout Australia and around the world, from people of all ages and backgrounds. The entries received were many and varied, ranging from the stately and expected to the more peculiar – such as native animals playing cricket with a winged cricket ball.

Five designs, which were almost identical, were selected as equal first and shared the £200 prize money. The winning designs were named the Australian red and blue ensigns. On 3 September 1901, Prime Minister Edmund Barton announced the winners of the national flag competition. A flag of the winning design was flown on the Exhibition Building in Melbourne.

This design was exceedingly similar to the one we fly proudly today. Under the union of the British blue ensign was a large white star with six points representing the six states. In the fly of the flag there were five white stars representing the Southern Cross. I am both pleased and proud that, 95 years on, the Howard government has officially proclaimed 3 September as National Flag Day, so we will always remember the birthday of our most important national symbol.

In February 1903, it was announced in the Commonwealth Gazette that King Edward VII had approved a design for the flag of Australia and also one for the flag of the merchant navy. Since then, the Australian national flag has remained largely unchanged. The only alteration in this time was made in 1908 with the addition of a seventh point to the Commonwealth star to symbolise the Commonwealth territories.

The only alteration at this time was made in 1908, with the addition of a seventh point to the Commonwealth star to symbolise the Commonwealth territories. The new flag heralded Australia′s birth as a nation. It flew over the site for the national capital at Canberra in 1908, and at the opening of both the old and new parliament houses in Canberra in 1927 and 1988 respectively. It flew on the first ships of the new navy in 1910, and at the first Australian base on the Antarctic continent in 1911.

Since 1908, it has also been raised for our medal winners at every Olympic Games. In 1956, it flew with pride as the flag of the host nation in Melbourne, and it will do so again in Sydney in 2000. The flag has also been carried into battle by the cruiser HMAS Sydney in the first naval battle of World War I, by the Anzacs who landed on the beaches at Gallipoli and by the diggers who were victorious in France in 1917 and 1918. In World War II, when Singapore was retaken in 1945, the first flag to be flown was an Australian flag secretly made by Australian prisoners of war inside a Japanese prison camp. The men risked instant execution if found out, but made the ensign to help boost morale. When the camp was liberated the flag was proudly flown, a symbol of hope and freedom. The flag was also carried into the jungle battles of the Vietnam War and into the recent Gulf War.

It is true that nothing symbolises a nation like its flag, and the Australian flag is firmly entrenched as one of our most cherished institutions. When we think of Australia, our identity and national pride, one of the first things that comes to mind is our flag. Some of our greatest achievements as a nation have been made with an Australian flag in sight. Who can forget the emotion and sense of pride we feel as we see our country′s flag hoisted high during a medal ceremony at an Olympic or Commonwealth games, or when Australia′s first astronaut, Andy Collins, proudly flew the flag in space; or the patriotism we felt when champions such as the Oarsome Foursome, Kieren Perkins or Cathy Freeman draped themselves in the Australian flag after winning their respective medals at this year′s Atlanta Olympics; or the pride we feel when we see thousands of children and adults line the streets of cities and country towns waving our flag during Anzac parades, welcome home parades for our Olympians and the Australia Remembers parades of last year? Who can forget that emotional moment at the closing ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics when the Australian flag was raised to the cheers of the thousands of people at the stadium in honour of the host nation of the 2000 Olympics?

Our flag is an authentic home-grown symbol of our nation. Despite claims to the contrary, there was no requirement in the official rules of the government′s original flag competition for there to be a Union Jack in the design. It was put there by the designers themselves and chosen unanimously by seven judges, representative of all Australians. It is true that until 1953, when the Flags Act formally established the Blue Ensign as the Australian national flag and prescribed the Red Ensign as the proper flag for merchant ships, there was some confusion about which flag could be flown publicly. Many people were uncertain whether the blue could be flown publicly or was restricted to official and government purposes.

Before the Flags Act became law, both Prime Minister Robert Menzies and Prime Minister Ben Chifley issued press statements encouraging the Australian public to fly the blue ensign freely. The Menzies government also began issuing flags to all public schools and community groups, and directed that the flag be flown by all Commonwealth government departments. This tradition is continued today by the Howard government. We continue to promote the flag by enabling members of parliament and senators to issue Australian flags free of charge to all schools, local councils, churches and other non-profit or benevolent community organisations.

In my electorate of McEwen I have received hundreds of requests for flags from community groups and schools within my electorate since the last election, and also from individuals who have been chosen to represent Australia overseas on exchange or study programs. Every time I present an Australian flag to a group in McEwen I am constantly struck by the level of pride shown in our flag, whether it is by older Australians, such as members of the Broadford Senior Citizens′ Club, or by a young Australian like Daniel Proud from Nagambie Primary School.

The Australian flag is much more than the Union Jack, the Southern Cross and the Commonwealth Star on a blue background. It is a reflection of our national pride and evokes memories of times when we are uniquely proud to be Australian - in war, in sport, in great achievements and memorable events.

It is indeed unfortunate that many people, particularly members of the opposition, have in the past tried to dissect our flag and deem it unsuitable or no longer relevant. I refer in particular to one statement by Senator Chris Schacht who told Channel 9′s A Current Affair program in 1992:

We haven′t yet defined our image of who we are and it is very confusing having a flag which gives pride of place in the top left-hand corner to the flag of another country and I think that it is a confusing image anywhere in the world.

It may be confusing to Senator Schacht and other members of the opposition but it is certainly not confusing to me or to the majority of Australians.

Almost every opinion poll conducted over the past 17 years has shown that a majority of Australians wish to retain the current flag. This overwhelming support for the current flag should be a strong indicator to this government and to future governments that the people should have a direct say in any proposal to change the current Australian flag.

People in my electorate of McEwen agree. During my travels around my electorate, not only to present flags but to attend a multitude of functions, people of all ages have spoken of their love for the current flag and of their desire to be consulted before any changes are made. To give an example, one student from Yarra Glen said to me:

More than any other emblem that captures the nation, I identify with the Australian flag as a symbol which not only represents our past, but one which will carry us through to the next century. I understand that there are people today who question the relevance of the flag or that would seek to include or exclude certain particular aspects. However, I would hesitate to make permanent changes without consulting the body of people which would be most affected – the Australian public.

Australians were directly involved in the initial search for an Australian flag 95 years ago. Therefore, why should they not be given a say in any move to introduce a new flag? Australians have a right to decide what their greatest national symbol should be. They should not have change forced down their throats just for the sake of change. Our flag does not exist for the convenience of other countries.

Australia recognises its history in its flag through the Union Jack, just as other countries do. For example, Mexico′s flag includes the red of Spain, France′s flag includes white for its monarchy, and the state of Hawaii′s flag also features the Union Jack despite America′s independence from England more than 200 years ago. We cannot ignore our history while, at the same time, we cannot be restrained by it.

A flag is the symbol of a nation. It is meant to unite a nation and last throughout the centuries. It is not meant to be a reflection of a country in its present state and change according to the trends of the time. What if another flag were chosen and in 100 years it too was deemed irrelevant. Would it too be cast aside in favour of a more trendy alternative?

This is best put by the prominent historian Geoffrey Blainey who said:

The flags of the world are full of symbols that belong to the past... Flags aren′t up-to-date information sheets.

Without doubt, any move to change the flag without consultation with the Australian public would cause bitter and lasting divisions within the community. There would never be complete acceptance for any new flag and millions of Australians would always resent having any change forced upon them.

Without doubt, any move to change the flag without consultation with the Australian public would cause bitter and lasting divisions within the community. There would never be complete acceptance for the new flag, and millions of Australians would resent having that change forced upon them.

In an article `The Flag: Symbol of our National Identity′ in the IPA Review of 1991, Santo Santoro said:

Any move to change our flag would lead to a lengthy and probably bitter debate, with the potential to exacerbate political divisions, to set newcomer against native-born and migrant against migrant. It is unrealistic to imagine that any alternative could command anything like the degree of support for the current Australian flag, particularly after the acrimonious debate which any change is certain to entail.

While some people claim that the current flag does not do Aboriginal history justice and that true reconciliation cannot take place until the flag is changed, I think we should take note of the Canadian example.

When Canada adopted its red and white maple leaf flag 25 years ago, it was meant to unite Canada. However, as we all know, problems continue in Canada, culminating in the well-documented attempts of the Quebec separatists. I readily acknowledge that some people object to the Union Jack being in our flag, but I do not believe that that is cause for removing it. We cannot change history by ignoring it.

The truth is that we have a strong historical tie with Britain and the majority of our population is descended from the British. The Southern Cross is a symbol which unites all Australians. It reflects our position in the world and features in Aboriginal folklore, while the Commonwealth star represents Federation and our birth as a nation.

For a government to change the flag without consulting the people whom it would most affect would be outrageous. When moves were afoot in the mid-1970s to change the national anthem, the Fraser government did not force change upon the people. It put the question to the Australian public in the form of a poll.

In fact, Prime Minister Fraser wanted Waltzing Matilda as our national song, as did our current Prime Minister (Mr Howard), but instead of legislating that change without consultation they left the decision in the hands of Australians. Australians voted for our current anthem, Advance Australia Fair. If such a democratic system was good enough for our national anthem, why should our national flag be treated with any less respect?

Over the past 12 years, the coalition has made repeated efforts in parliament to entrench the current flag in legislation and ensure that it cannot be changed without the support of the people. Unfortunately, the Labor Party has thwarted each of these attempts, refusing to support a simple democratic proposition. There can be no justification for changing the existing Australian flag without first receiving majority support from all Australians.

Our flag is a symbol for all, not just for the government of the day. We have no right to introduce a new flag without consulting the people for whom the flag is flown. This government has acted on its promise to protect our great national symbol, the Australian flag. As our Prime Minister said when he announced the plan on Anzac Day this year:

This will mean that no politician, no political party and no special interest group will be able to tamper with the design of our flag... All Australians can be assured that no one will be able to change our national symbol without the nation′s consent.

I believe that is exactly how it should be, and I commend this bill to the house.