Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Malcolm (Mal) Brough (Liberal Party of Australia) - Member for Longman (Qld)

It certainly gives me great pleasure this afternoon to rise to add my contribution to this debate on the Flags Amendment Bill. You may have picked up that I am wearing a bow tie, which is not my custom. This is a particularly fine bow tie.

It has been fashioned on the Sunshine Coast and represents our national flag. It was given to me by Mr Peter Lawlor, who is the current President of the Caboolture RSL Subdistricts. I thank him very much because it says a little about my feelings towards our flag. I am an unabashed supporter of the Australian flag. I believe it represents us well today and I hope very sincerely that it will continue into the future.

What I like about the Australian flag is that it tells a story. It is not just a piece of coloured cloth. It is not three stripes. It tells a story about where we are, who we are and where we come from.

As the previous speaker, the member for Mitchell (Mr Cadman), said, it shows the Southern Cross, which represents where we are in the world. It shows our unity as a nation with the federation star and the Union Jack. The Union Jack is not only about where we have come from and where our roots are - I am not too sure that others have alluded to it in this debate - but also the compilation of three other flags, they being the three Christian flags of St George, St Patrick and St Andrew.

It also says something about what we are as a nation. When we fill out our census forms the overwhelming majority of Australians today still refer to themselves as Christians. It says where we are in the world geographically, the fact that we are unified, the fact that we are all together as one, and it says a little about where we have come from. The flag crosses all boundaries, whether you are black, white or brindle. It crosses your demographic and social boundaries. It is all-encompassing. That is why I embrace the Australian flag.

This bill today is not about whether I like the Australian flag or whether I want to see it changed, as some in this House obviously do. It is about whether or not one person or any one organisation should be able to change that flag without first relating that back to the people in the form of a plebiscite, a vote of the people.

A symbol as important as our flag certainly deserves the consideration of the nation as a whole before it is changed. Many speakers before me have related how the flag was decided by competition and that it was only in the fifties that the flag actually passed into law, even though it has been used for the best part of 100 years. It is also important for people to remember that we have only been a nation for less than 100 years. Whilst white Australians have been in this place for over 200 years, we have only been a nation - one Australian people - since the turn of the century. When we go into the next millennium, we must ask ourselves whether we are going to allow the will of just a few people or one or two organisations to determine the future of our pre-eminent symbol of this nation.

I would like to turn to a couple of the comments that have been made by those opposite in regard to our current flag. The honourable member for Chifley (Mr Price) pointed out to us that when he is overseas and people run the New Zealand flag up the flagpole he is embarrassed because they have mistaken the New Zealand flag for the Australian flag. I would suggest to him that it is not something to be embarrassed about. Perhaps those that have run up the flag have shown their ignorance and they should be embarrassed. I certainly am not. Are we to change our name from Australia because Austria has been around for a lot longer than us and we have been mistaken before for Austria and people have used the wrong national anthem? It really does not follow.

We have our national symbols. We have our national floral symbols and emblems and we have a national flag. It is not until it becomes the will of the overwhelming majority of Australians which can be reflected in the form of a vote that this parliament should ever elect to change it.

One member opposite mentioned that the flag does not encompass the Aboriginals and that they now have their own flag and that perhaps the Union Jack should be removed out of the corner of our current flag and be replaced by the Aboriginal flag. But the member for O′Connor (Mr Tuckey) rightly pointed out that the Aboriginals have never recognised a symbol such as a flag for the thousands of years they have occupied this country. The fact is that the Aboriginals have never been one nation. They have been an enormous different number of nations living on the one continent. They now all live under - and always have done - the Southern Cross. So why wouldn′t they feel just as represented with this flag we currently have?

Many of the elders of the Aboriginal community do not recognise the flag that is purported to be that of the Aboriginal people. Therefore, some person′s opinion in this place that it would be a good idea to replace the Union Jack with the Aboriginal flag would be quite unrepresentative not only of the many migrants in this country but also of many of the Aboriginal people. I do not think it is for us to be judging what changes should be made. My views, as I pointed out earlier on and as I show by the fact that I wear the Australian flag today, are quite obvious. It does not mean that my views are any more representative or any better than those of any other person in this place or throughout this nation. Therefore, I feel that the only way we can ever determine a change to the Australian flag is to have the views of everybody considered. I will never be in a position of pushing my thoughts down their throats.

Questions were also asked today as to why we are having the debate this week and why we are having the debate at all. One of these points was canvassed by the previous speaker, the Chief Government Whip, when he said, quite rightly, that under normal circumstances there should be no good reason why we would need to have this debate, other than that Australians were fearful that those who would undermine our symbols, and who took direct steps to do that, would remove Australia′s No. 1 symbol from them without their having a say. Therefore in opposition we put forward the policy that we would encompass the views of Australians when and if ever the Australian people elect to change this symbol.

I think that is a great step forward. But it shows the ignorance, the arrogance and the lack of ability to listen of those opposite in the previous parliament. I might add that I am not referring to all of those present today or all of those in this parliament, the 38th parliament, but certainly to a good number of those. That is probably one of the reasons why - because they misrepresented the Australian population so badly - so few of them remain here now.

As to having the debate this week, it was put earlier today that this debate was no more than a filler. What an interesting day of filling we have had! The Prime Minister (Mr Howard) has made a speech to the parliament on the achievements of the Howard government. Of course, there have been many achievements in the short period that we have been in government. A day on which the Prime Minister elects to speak to the Australian people and to the parliament about the first nine months of the Howard government is certainly a day on which I am more than happy to stand in this place and talk about the Australian flag.

It is also a very important day for many Australians because it is the day on which, yet again, we have seen a further cut in interest rates, which will be welcomed by Australian families, as they also welcome the news that their flag will have security because of this legislation. So there are many good reasons why this day - and this week - is a very good and appropriate time to debate this question so that we, the people′s house of the Australian parliament, ensure that the question of whether the Australian flag is changed remains a decision for all Australians.

A point made by some of those opposite is that this legislation can be changed. They are 100 per cent correct. Any legislation can be changed; we know that. I put it to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that if under the previous regime this legislation had been in place and they had intended to push ahead with their thoughts of changing the Australian flag, the first step they would have had to take would have been to have a vote or, at the very least, change the legislation in this parliament.

I would say to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that that would be somewhat telegraphing your punches, and the people who have now formed the Australian Flag Association around this nation, who feel very strongly about maintaining this as our national flag for many years to come, would have been mobilised very quickly to ensure that the wider community was aware of what was afoot. That is what this legislation is about. It is about involving all Australians in determining their future.

Next year, we will no doubt see a debate on whether we will become a republic. Once again, rather than dominating the debate, we will see the Prime Minister and the government taking a leading hand in the debate but not directing it, not enforcing their will upon others. That is very much why this legislation has been framed in its current form.

It was also suggested that this piece of legislation and the whole flag debate really did not need to be debated at all, that it was not really important, that the economy was important. You are right: the economy is very important. We are seeing massive changes and improvements to the economy as this government grows in stature, as we see interest rates, as I said earlier, coming down, as we see tax cuts being delivered to the average family household on 1 January, and as we see the industrial relations reforms coming into place. But the symbols are still important and people like to have that security.

Many members who have spoken before me are active in their own communities, particularly with the veterans. I am as well, as a member of the Bribie Island RSL Club, as a former member of the defence forces and the Vietnam Veterans Association. These people are just a small part of the community who feel very dearly about our current flag. They would see themselves as being absolutely betrayed if this flag were changed, after the sacrifices they have made. If that becomes the will of the people, I am sure they will be willing to accept that. But they will not be willing to accept the views of a very small minority who want to force their opinions upon the wider community; and nor should they.

In conclusion, I reiterate that this bill is not just about my preference, the preference of the member for Batman (Mr Martin Ferguson) or any other member of this parliament. It is about the preference of the wider community. These questions, which are about who we are as a people and the symbols that we put forward, should rightly be debated throughout the Australian community, and people should have an input. But they should always be secure in the knowledge that there is legislation in place by a responsible government, that their rights to their opinions and to the changing of their national symbols will be safeguarded.

Recently, the post office on Bribie Island in my electorate pulled down the Australian flag. I received numerous calls. There were letters to the editor and articles in the local paper. It created an interest in the community because they looked to that symbol as they went about their daily business.

On a positive note, more Australians in that area have now chosen to fly the Australian flag in their own backyards. I believe in this form of patriotism. I believe in showing that you are proud of your country and your nation′s symbols. I believe that this Australian flag, as it currently stands, will fly over this parliament and this nation for many years to come. It will only be once the Australian public has spoken in overwhelming numbers that we will change our symbols or our form of government. This legislation will ensure that those safeguards are in place. I commend the bill to the House.