Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

The Hon. Leo Price (Australian Labor Party) - Member for Chifley (NSW)

I found that to be a very interesting contribution by the member for Paterson (Mr Bob Baldwin), perhaps more interesting for what he did not say than for what he did. As I have got older the symbol of our nation - the flag - has meant more and more to me, so I take this debate very seriously.

I think at the outset what we have to do is say that this is a bit of legislation and, like any bit of legislation, it can be amended. In fact this legislation amends the 1953 legislation brought in by Mr Menzies.

I think it was interesting that, when going over the history of the flag, the member for Paterson talked about the competition and the fact that the blue ensign was finally selected in 1902 to become the official and navy flag. In 1903 we got the red ensign, which was for the merchant navy, the only difference being the red background.

From that period until 1953, there was a degree of confusion about what constituted Australia′s national flag. The 1953 legislation was enacted and clearly said that the blue ensign was going to be our flag. So having a clearly defined national flag in our settled history of almost 200 years - ignoring the earlier history - has only happened in the last 43 years.

I found it amusing to learn that the 1953 legislation - lest we offend people - preserved the right and privilege of people to fly the Union Jack, presumably as a symbol of Australia. I am looking forward to hearing whether other government speakers feel that this right enshrined in the 1953 legislation, and untouched by this amendment bill, is something that they fully support as reflecting a symbol of our country.

I had earlier developed a private member′s bill, so greatly do I feel the flag represents a symbol of our nation. My private member′s bill prevented the burning or defacing of the Australian flag, but I regret that circumstances prevented me from proceeding with that bill. On my side of the House, a lot of people would probably object very vigorously to that provision, so great do they hold this democracy of ours in Australia. They believe that people have an inalienable right to protest and that a test of that protest even comes when symbols of our country are damaged in that way, and I have some sympathy for that view. When we start beating our breasts about the quality of our democracy, we ought to lay down some of the tests of that democracy.

If you walk into my electorate office, you will notice a few things as you go through the door. The first is an Australian flag. It has only been of recent times - in the last couple of years, I think - that I have had alongside the Australian flag another official flag, the Aboriginal flag. I must say that I am very proud to see it there.

I also have what I believe to be a great photo of the Kibeho refugee camp in Rwanda. You can see me and the then deputy high commissioner for Nairobi - and I apologise because I have forgotten her name - and we are surrounded by thousands of kids. The purpose of my visit to Rwanda was to see Australian peacekeepers in action, and I considered it to be a great privilege to be there with a number of other members of the House, including the Speaker, and some senators.

The photo is a stark reminder to me that there was a subsequent massacre at that camp, with some 5,000 killed. It is highly likely that some of those children seen in that photograph were killed during the massacre, although I have no way of telling. When I have been to Rwanda and seen on the ground what our people have done and I have seen the Australian flag, I get a real buzz out of it. I must say that the same happens for me when visiting our peacekeepers in Somalia.

Interestingly, when we talk about the importance of the flag in terms of our defence forces, we need to make the point that during the Second World War the likelihood was that our soldiers who died in battle probably did not have the blue ensign or the Australian flag flown. It is likely that the Union Jack or another allied flag was flown, rather than our own national flag.

I appreciate very much that there are a lot of Australians who feel very strongly about preserving our current flag, but I want to be perfectly frank with the House and perfectly frank with the people of my electorate. I get embarrassed when I am overseas and people fly the New Zealand flag thinking it is the Australian flag. As some people confessed after Atlanta, they were embarrassed when the Australian and New Zealand flags were flown side by side and it was so difficult to detect the difference.

When we are approaching the 200th year of our federation and a new millennium, I would like to see something that is uniquely Australian so that there is no confusion about whether this is a colony of the UK and so that it cannot be confused with New Zealand and/or some other former colony. My own preference in fact is to replace the Union Jack with the centrepiece of the Aboriginal flag. The attraction for me is this: the Aboriginal Australians were the first Australians. All subsequent Australians have come to this land. I believe it recognises their unique and special role in our society, and, of course, it gives the flag a unique character. It also preserves the stars.

Some people will say, "Look, this is just an anti-British thing. You want to get the Union Jack out of your flag because you′re anti-United Kingdom." I always say that England provided so much to our society. It is woven into the fabric of our society. No matter how bloody-minded you are, you will not eliminate it. That is our history. That is something that we should cherish, and I do. But we are, after all, an independent nation now. Hopefully, the government will contemplate Australia becoming a republic and make that abundantly clear and avoid the current confusion. So I think it is appropriate for us to look at a new flag.

It is one of my pleasures in life to go around to the schools in my area presenting flags. I like to talk about my overseas experience. I like to talk about our flag being the symbol of our nation. I suppose I had better get a disclaimer officially on the Hansard record. There is no truth in a rumour that is going around my electorate that I am secretly employing a gang of teenagers to knock off school flags to give myself an opportunity to re-present flags to the schools. There is absolutely no truth to that. I officially deny it here, and I do so on every occasion. But I am never displeased to be at a school and talking to the young school children about our flag, my experiences and what I think it should symbolise for them.

As I say, in a changing society, schools are so radically different. In my day, if someone presented a flag to a school, you would have done it to the principal. The students would have had absolutely no part in the ceremony. These days - and it matters not whether you go to a primary or a high school - you are more than likely to be welcomed and introduced at the microphone by a student, usually the captain, and you present the flag to the students. I think this is a wonderful change in roles and relationships at schools.

The people that we present the flag to - the primary school students and the high school students - are the future of our nation. I regret to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you and I are probably not going to have too much influence beyond this millennium. It is those people who are going to decide. Wouldn′t it be really nice in the year 2000, when we are going to have the Olympics in Australia - I see the Minister for Sport, Territories and Local Government (Mr Warwick Smith) has entered the chamber - if we had a flag that was uniquely and distinctly Australian so that, in that context between Mother England, New Zealand and Australia, when the flags rise as they do to herald the winner, the second place-getter and the third place-getter, there would be no confusion in that huge audience worldwide that Australia has won or Australia has come second or Australia has come third.

When we talk about the symbol of our country, I would like to think that, as we approach the year 2000, we might try to balance that Aussie tendency of knocking off tall poppies to give people a fair go and being a little self-deprecating and display to all those who come to Australia something that I think Australians have, that is, a great love of our country, and perhaps be a little bit more open in expressing that and be a little bit more patriotic. But you cannot legislate for that. This is the point I want to make. You really cannot legislate for that. I do not think that this bill is particularly helpful at all. Probably, I am going to be sharing quite a bit more with government speakers than perhaps with some others, but I do not think that this particular bill is the way to go about it.

In fact, I do not think the government is particularly serious about the bill. I can say to the people in the galleries that in the last week what the House of Representatives is all about is being positioned to receive bills coming back from the Senate. The government looks around to find bills or opportunities which are, effectively, fillers. If you look at the speakers list, and note that this is coming up again in the last week of the sitting, you would have to say that this is being used as a filler and that, in fact, they are not being particularly serious about the bill. I regret that because I think it is an important opportunity.

I was talking earlier about the flag being the symbol of our country, patriotism and the quality of our democracy. When people make speeches about the flag, it is fair enough to talk about those who have sacrificed their lives. I might say on that that I am one who says that, when we ask people to put their lives on the line for this country, as we do with serving men and women, we ought to make sure that they very much understand what it is that they are trying to preserve - what is this Australian way of life and what is our Australian parliamentary system, our Australian executive.

Frankly, I do not think we do enough of that. When HMAS Nirimba was still open, I was pleased to bring cadets down here for the first time to wander around parliament, meet a few people and actually touch one of the institutions they are charged with defending.

The quality of our democracy has to be such that we allow criticism, we allow people to voice their views, and sometimes in a way that might offend us. That is an important test of a democracy. The other test is the extent to which we are prepared to care and be concerned about the weakest in our society, particularly when it is perhaps very unfashionable and politically incorrect to do so. That is also an important quality of democracy.

I am tempted to talk about some of the churches. I realise I am committing one of those cardinal sins in mixing politics and religion. If you look at the mission statement of the churches, you will see that they will not argue they are really about the poorest in our society, not the wealthiest and best off. They have also have the dilemma of wanting to reflect their active membership, and that can become a conflict.

When we talk about the quality of our Australian democracy and the quality of our nation, let us be very proud of it. I certainly am. The more I go overseas, the prouder I am. But it also means that we have responsibilities. The quality of this Australian democracy is to speak up for the weakest, for those that cannot speak on behalf of themselves, for the powerless in our society. They are not always being championed. Sometimes when they seek to express themselves they are turned on. A key ingredient of our democracy is tolerance. It is true that united we stand but we ought not to go for the lowest common denominator. Being united means embracing all.

Last but not least - I want to finish on this note - when I see the Australian flag it is the symbol of our country. We are one nation. I am pleased to say we are one nation with many cultures - the original culture of this land, the Aboriginal culture, and all the successive waves of migrants that have come and continue to come. Whether people come from the United Kingdom or Ireland or New Zealand or Southern Europe or Asia, part of that rich texture of our nation is this diversity. So, yes, Australia first, but an Australia and Australians from different cultures and backgrounds. I have been pleased to speak on this bill. I note that when the issue first came up I was overseas and did not have the opportunity to speak on it.