Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Mark Vaile (National Party of Australia) - Member for Lyne (NSW)

It certainly is an honour to be able to participate in this debate on the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. It certainly is very important that a clear and unambiguous signal is sent to this nation that we are not going to change any of our national symbols without the people of Australia being given that clear choice, without the people of Australia giving the government of the day a clear indication of what they want to do.

This bill seeks to amend the Flags Act 1953 by providing that the present Australian national flag can be replaced only if a majority of state and territory electors qualified to vote for the House of Representatives agree. There is no added requirement for a majority of states to support such a requirement, as is the case with an amendment to our Commonwealth constitution. On 25 April 1996 the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) said:

The new Federal Government is to take action, as promised, to protect our great national symbol, the Australian Flag. Legislation will be introduced early in the life of the new Parliament... to ensure that the Australian Flag cannot be changed without the approval of all of the Australian people voting at a referendum or plebiscite. 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.

I think all people around Australia accept the sentiments in this bill as being very indicative of the way Australia should be run and operated.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent times about changing the flag because it does not represent Australia, it is not recognisable and it gets mixed up with the flags of other countries. By that, the people who want to change the Australian flag are almost invariably alluding to confusion with the New Zealand flag and the British flag, with the Union Jack that forms part of our own national symbol.

I take a different view to that in that I think it is more important that we as Australians, whether we are within this country or overseas somewhere, watching some sporting event or at a historical event, identify with our national symbol rather than people from other countries immediately identifying the Australian flag. If we lined up all the flags from the different countries of the world, how many could people individually identify? So I do not accept that argument being pushed. Certainly, it will not hurt to have a review, as we propose to have reviews of other constitutional arrangements.

The previous speaker, the member for Moreton (Mr Hardgrave), spoke about taking a lot of time as a federal member to speak to different community groups, to present the flag to schools and talk to young school children at every opportunity to make sure they are abundantly aware of what each of the individual symbols within our flag means and represents. The overwhelming majority of people I talk to want to retain this Australian flag and this Australian symbol.

It is just as important, if not more important, for Australians who identify with this symbol to acknowledge that identification as it is, to be cognisant of the other side of the argument, which is that our flag is not readily identifiable as compared to, say, the flag of New Zealand or the flag of England.

We should recognise it as a symbol which is more important to the people that live within Australia that recognise it as our national flag and as our national symbol; we should not place so much emphasis on what it means or its recognisability to people overseas. I think that is a very important element in this debate.

It is interesting to note that earlier this year AGB McNair polled a number of Australians as to whether they thought the Australian flag should be changed. Sixty-six per cent said no and only 27 per cent said yes. That reinforces the comment I made earlier with regard to the attitude, particularly amongst young people in Australia today, to our national symbol, and it is very important. I make a particular effort to get to as many schools as I can in my electorate, not just presenting the Australian flag to young Australians but actually explaining the importance and the significance of the elements of our Australian flag.

That is incredibly important in that educational process and I think that is probably what has been lacking in recent years. In my generation, we used to have the flag raising ceremony at school and we used to go through the process. But we were not ever taught at school about the importance of the elements and the symbolism of that national flag. It is important to note that a flag tells a country and its people their history. It symbolises our beginning and our heritage. The Australian flag tell us where we came from, where we are and our duty to the future. It is well known across the length and breadth of this country - the symbolism of the Southern Cross. That signifies where this great south land sits in the globe and in world affairs, that we are in the southern hemisphere.

Interestingly, during the Australia Remembers year last year, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of prisoners of war who were incarcerated in Changi Prison in Singapore during the Second World War. One of the things that kept them going through those very hard years was the fact that they could actually see the Southern Cross in the southern sky and they knew that is where Australia was. That is incredibly important to those people, as it should be to everybody today. The Federation Star was originally on the flag as a six-pointer but then the territories were added and it became a seven-point star. That symbolises what the Commonwealth of Australia is made up of, that we were a number of colonies or states to start with that came together as a federation.

Just as importantly, there is the Union Jack. There is not a broad understanding of the importance and the heritage of the Union Jack. I suppose it is important to me as a Christian, but the Christian and biblical background of the Union Jack is very important and it is something that should be understood by all Australians if we ever got to the situation where as a country we were going to vote on whether or not we should be changing the flag. We should understand the elements of that flag. Yes, the Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom, it is the flag of another country, but the elements that come together to create the Union Jack have a much deeper cultural meaning to a lot of people in Australia than just the fact that it is a flag of another country.

The date of the completion of the Union Jack was 1801, and this coincided with the growth of the British commonwealth of nations under Queen Victoria. But what does the Union Jack mean? There are three things to remember about it: its name and the three countries it stands for; the three crosses and their meaning; and the three colours, red, white and blue, and their meaning. Originally, under the reign of King Richard I, in about 1189, the English flag had only one cross because it was for one country, and that was England. This cross was red on a white background and was called St George′s Cross, after St George, who was the patron saint of England.

It is interesting to know a bit of background about St George. St George was born around the second half of the third century at Lydia in Palestine. His father was an officer of great wealth in the army of Diocletian, the Roman emperor. His mother was a daughter of the Count of Lydia. This Lydia is the same area that St Peter himself visited, which visit resulted in the conversion to Christianity of the whole town. That is the Cross of St George, and that is the red cross.

In 1801, in the reign of George III, Ireland was added to England and Scotland and with Ireland came its national flag of St Patrick, a red diagonal cross on a white background. The three crosses were then blended together to become our present Union Jack, which signifies the union of England, Scotland and Ireland as one Christian country under the blessing of the cross of the new covenant.

St Patrick of Ireland has an interesting background as well. St Patrick is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland and there seems to be some confusion as to his exact date and place of birth. This is probably brought about by the fact that St Patrick is often mistaken for other characters of the same name and the same era. The most common evidence is that he was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, sometime around the year 373 A.D.

The third element of the Union Jack is the Cross of St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. The national religious emblem of Scotland is St Andrew′s Cross and he is the patron saint of Scotland. According to the Gospel of St John, Andrew was a brother to St Peter and is the first apostle named. The gospel further states that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist before Christ′s call.

Interestingly, they are the elements that make up the Union Jack. It is not just about the flag of another country, it is about a biblical heritage. And with this nation being predominantly a Christian nation - and I admit it is not all Christian - it is very important that we recognise the symbolism and the heritage in those three elements of the Union Jack. It is not just about the cross of another nation.

It is interesting to note that some commentators say that the name, the Union Jack, is a contraction of the union of Jacob and that the settlers in England, Scotland and Ireland were actually from the sons of Jacob who ended up in Great Britain. The Union Jack is actually the union of Jacob. That is very interesting to note. This is one argument that is quite often put with regard to the development of that national flag.

In closing, let me say that it is very important to the people of Australia, if they are ever going to consider changing our national flag, that they have the opportunity to vote on it. The flag is not to be changed within this place by politicians, by governments, the people of Australia must have the opportunity to vote on any change to our national flag.

Also, and most importantly, everybody in this country should understand the different elements of the flag and the symbolism that is contained within that flag. I encourage all members in this place to take the opportunity to distribute the national flag, particularly to schools in their electorates, as I do, and take the opportunity to explain the important symbolism and heritage that is contained in the different elements in the Australian flag. I commend the bill to the House.