Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Kathryn (Kathy) Sullivan (Liberal Party of Australia) - Member for Moncrieff (Qld)

I believe I am in a unique position in this debate on the Flags Amendment Bill in the House today in that I am the only member of the House who has actually spoken on the issue in both chambers. In 1984, the opposition introduced the Flags Amendment Bill into the Senate and the second reading was moved in September. The debate on it took place in October. Unfortunately, I did not get to vote on it there. The debate was adjourned and was not resumed until February 1985 when the debate was concluded and the bill passed on the voices.

I have often said to people that the first lesson of politics is patience. I think that possibly the Flags Amendment Bill is a very good example of that. The bill did pass the Senate in February 1985, as I have said, and was subsequently introduced into this House in 1985 by the gentleman who is now the Prime Minister (Mr Howard). We have waited a long time to debate it in this House. For a number of reasons, I am very pleased to still be here and have the opportunity to debate and vote on it again. National symbols are a subject in which I have taken a very longstanding interest - national symbols including the flag but not exclusively about the flag - and I find that, whilst the flag is something that many people in the community hold passionate views on, many of them are really very badly informed about it. It was no coincidence that the basic flag design that we have today was submitted by four individuals in response to the competition that was run to choose a national flag back at the end of the 19th century.

It is a matter of record that four people submitted the same design and shared the prize and that a few years later that design was slightly modified by the addition of the seven-pointed federation star underneath the Union Jack. I say it is no coincidence that four people submitted an identical design because that design had been in wide usage well before the competition was run.

The first example of that design that I have been able to identify goes back to an organisation called the Australasian Anti-Transportation League which in the 1850s adopted that design as its symbol, the differences, of course, being that the federation star was not on it and the stars of the Southern Cross were in gold. But in all other respects the design was the same as the one that won the competition for the new Australian flag.

It is particularly appropriate that our present flag originated from that organisation because it was the anti-transportation movement which was the beginnings of an organised voice amongst people then living in what were British colonies - some of them semi self-governing, others not - towards a new democratic free nation.

The anti-transportation movement had as its objective stopping the transportation of convicts from England to Australia because those who were behind the movement recognised that Australia could never be free and self-governing, could never be anything other than a colony, for as long as it was a repository for English convicts. So in the 1850s the Australasian Anti-Transportation League adopted that basic design of the Union Jack and the Southern Cross. It is worth putting on record that our present flag has that very longstanding link with the very beginnings of the democratic self-government process in Australia.

A flag is the most important national symbol that a country has. It is the symbol that a country chooses to represent itself to the rest of the world. Therefore, it is something that should not be lightly adopted or rejected. It should not be lightly changed.

I have no difficulty at all with the present design of the flag - in fact I like it - as a symbol of modern Australia. One of the great beauties of the flag and its symbolism is that it is a growing symbolism; it is one that extends itself over the decades. It probably had a very significant meaning back in 1850, had a slightly different meaning in 1901 and it again has a new meaning in Australia at the end of the 20th century.

Often, like other members, I have presented flags at schools and, in so doing, attempted to explain to quite young people the significance of the symbolism. On the subject of the Southern Cross, I say to them that it was like a signpost in the early days when the early explorers realised that there was a continent in the southern hemisphere. In the early days of discovery of the Australian continent and in its early days of settlement, those who came here used sailing ships and had none of our modern navigational aids. It was by the Southern Cross that they found their way to Australia.

The Southern Cross was a constellation visible only in the southern hemisphere. Over time, sailors and navigators of those sailing ships realised that once they could sight the Southern Cross in the heavens, then they could find a bearing for Australia. So the Southern Cross became a signpost to this new country.

One of the great things about our very special nation is that we are still a young nation and we remain young by the continued evolution of a new society. In recent times there has been a lot of debate - which I do not intend to re-visit here today - on the subject of immigration to Australia. Since the end of the Second World War, with the great waves of immigrants and refugees who came to Australia in the late 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s, Australia changed and became yet another new nation, different in many respects from the one that existed up until the end of the 1930s.

Since the late 1970s, we have again taken a new direction socially and culturally as a result of immigration. But the core values of this country have remained the same. Those core values find their origin in those who initially settled this country and then worked to make it a self-governing democracy. So all the symbols on the flag are to me today as relevant as they would have been to the new Australians of the new nation of Australia in 1901.

There has been some reference in this debate to the Flags Act 1953. Some time ago I first had cause to consult the Hansard of the day and to read the debate on the original bill. It makes very interesting reading because everybody was in enthusiastic agreement with the bill - everybody supported the design of the flag and its origins.

One of the reasons I searched that debate was because of some little controversy that existed in the community - and still does, to some extent - regarding the blue ensign and the red ensign. When I was at school, the Flags Act was proclaimed. The first I knew that anything had happened in relation to the flag was a change in our daily parade - as we used to have in schools in those days. We used to all line up on a bitumen school ground, the school fife band would play God Save the King and the flag would go up the flagpole. The flag was this red ensign. But then one fine day the flag that went up the flagpole was a blue one. Nobody ever explained to us why the flag had changed.

When you are a child, ritual is very important. This ritual of the flag raising every day was very much part of my daily life, so I was quite startled. I remember very clearly that first occasion when a different flag went up the flagpole. One of the reasons it became anchored in my memory was that, when we used to take what were euphemistically referred to as art classes at school - art was never my best subject - from time to time it was relevant to include - in whatever topic our teacher had given us to invent a drawing of - a depiction of the Australian flag. I remember that I was never really sure from the first day the blue ensign went up the pole just what my flag was. So what I used to do was have two bob each way. If I had to do a drawing of something that included the flag, I would look back through my art book to see what colour I had done it the previous time. If it was blue that time, then this time I would do it red, then the next time I would do it blue and so on. I think I was probably hoping that my art teacher would tell me what was right and what was wrong. But I never was corrected.

The sadness of it is that our teachers did not know why the colour of the flag changed either. It changed, if you look at those debates on the Flags Act 1953 because there was confusion as to whether the national flag was a blue ensign or a red ensign. In fact, both were our flags prior to the Flags Act being passed.

One of the things the Flags Act did was to make the red ensign henceforth exclusively the flag of the merchant navy and the blue ensign exclusively the national flag. Both coloured flags were in common usage. The reason we had a red ensign at school was that it was commonly used at schools. The reason a blue ensign went up one fine day was that the then government distributed to all schools in Australia blue ensigns to replace the red ensign, which then became exclusively the flag of the merchant navy.

There has been some controversy on that subject with an organisation called the Australian National Flag Association. On one occasion in Queensland I got into a fairly unseemly argument with one Dr Rupert Goodman on that subject. I knew I was right and he was wrong. His view was that a lot of flags were stolen. The reason that some people were flying red flags was they had actually stolen them from the merchant navy. I found it fairly implausible that all the schools in Queensland, my home state, were flying stolen flags. I mention as an aside that I had attended quite a number of schools throughout Queensland because my father happened to be in a job which led him to frequent transfer. I attended a lot of schools throughout Queensland. They all flew the red flag prior to this event of the blue flag.

It was only walking through the corridors of Parliament House one day that I got my proof about the common usage of the red ensign. I do not know where this painting is now, but it used to be at the basement level of the old Parliament House. It was a painting of a very famous picture of the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament House - what we now refer to as the old Parliament House.

There was also a photograph of the Duke of York arriving to perform the opening. The photograph is in black and white. If you examine it, you will see that a great number of flags were hanging from the building and they were alternately the Australian flag and the Union Jack. There were equal numbers of the Union Jack flying. There was a contemporary painting done at the time. All depictions of the Australian flag in that painting are of the red ensign. I take it that the artist saw what he was painting and then copied the photograph.

I mention that for a very particular reason because I want to put on the record something that has bothered me ever since 1987. In 1987 there was a display in the foyer of the old Parliament House for the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Parliament House. That display included a new painting of that photograph. Every Australian flag in that new painting was a blue ensign. That is quite wrong. I think that painting was especially commissioned by the National Library. It is now its property. But I want the world to know it is wrong. The original painting in the old Parliament House is the one that is historically correct. That is a fairly major digression in time from what we are debating now. It just goes to show there are endless things you can say about the flag.

I return to the beginning of my speech and to that original debate that was held in the Senate on which eventually there was a vote taken in early 1985. By that time I was no longer a senator, I was a member of the House of Representatives. I spoke in the debate on the Flags Bill in the Senate in October 1984 when I was still a senator for Queensland. I regret that I did not get to vote on the bill there. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on such a bill again in this place. I am very pleased that we will vote on it here.

I put on the record there was only one government senator who spoke in the Senate debate, and that was Senator Grimes who was then the deputy leader of the government. He was dismissive of the entire debate and said that it was all a waste of time. Nevertheless, there was a concern in those days about some actions that were being taken in relation to national symbols. Part of the concern was the Labor Party′s own fault because, whenever you asked whether it was the government′s intention to change the flag, you could never get a straight answer.

Throughout all the debate, queries and questions raised in recent years, including in this chamber, about the possibility of Australia becoming a republic, the one subject on which its greatest advocate, the former Prime Minister, Mr Keating, would never utter a syllable was the flag. He left a very large question mark over the whole thing.

From my own experience of an organisation called Ausflag, I am aware that probably the longest standing campaigner, or rather the most influential campaigner, in Australia for a change of flag is one Rupert Murdoch. A flag competition was run by Ausflag a few years ago in which a prize was offered and a certain design was chosen. It was all entirely backed by Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch is also our most noteworthy campaigner for a republic in this country. It should be a matter of record that this former Australian, now an American, always has been one of the driving forces in moves for changing the flag.

I conclude with my original point: if there is to be any change in flag design it has to come from the people, just as the original design evolved through several decades of Australian history from the 1850s through to 1901; and it was a popular choice because it had come about through usage. It was truly a flag of the people by the time it was declared to be the Australian flag. It was the flag that Australians of the very new nation of Australia wished to have as the symbol of their nation to the rest of the world.

Should the flag ever be changed - I personally very strongly doubt that there will ever be national sentiment to that extent - then it must be a flag of the people. It cannot be a flag that is foisted on us by others, no matter how superior they may think their wisdom is, because the flag is so basic to the community. Therefore, I very enthusiastically yet again support the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. It will give the people the right to vote in a referendum on any proposed change to Australia′s national flag.