Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Thursday 12 December 1996

Michael Cobb (National Party of Australia) - Member for Parkes (NSW

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. I do not intend to speak for long. It is with great pride that I rise to support the bill. It does nothing more nor less than put in the people′s hands the power to decide whether the flag is going to be changed. This bill came about because of the fear that was placed in the Australian people and in coalition members when the ALP were in government that they would change the flag without reference to the people. They had in the past made various changes to national symbols and national colours without proper reference to the people. While I did not disagree with many of those decisions, I believe that the people should always be consulted on these matters.

In this bill we are simply saying to the Australian people, `If you want to change your flag, whatever your opinion is, well and good. But that decision is not one for the parliament. That decision is one for the people of Australia.′ I do not think that anybody could object to that course of action being taken.

There has been a tactic around to denigrate the Union Jack, as it is sometimes called, taking up a quarter of the flag in the top-left hand corner. It has been a symbol ridiculed by some. They have said it is outdated, that it is a cause of shame in this country and that, therefore, we have to change the flag. To me it has meant something else.

We are basically still an Anglo-Celtic country, though that is changing, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the system of justice that we have in this country that has served us so well, for all its faults, does come from that part of the world. Our system of democracy, which I will admit we sometimes take too much for granted in this country, largely comes from that part of the world. Our system of education, for all its faults, comes from that part of the world. The language that we predominantly speak in this country, our official language - the English language - comes from that part of the world. So much of every day life, so much of the good things that we enjoy, so much of our traditional basis and standard of living, come from that part of the world.

Whether you come from Italy, as the previous speaker did, or Macedonia, Albania, Cuba, Ethiopia - or even England and Ireland, as my forbears did - it is undeniable that this country has been shaped, rightly or wrongly, by the influx of people from that part of the world. That was recognised when the flag was put in place at the beginning of this century by having the Union Jack - the Union Flag, as it is sometimes called - in the top-left hand corner of the Australian flag. I do not see anything wrong with it.

Some people think it means that we are somehow subservient or still tied to the apron strings of England, that it is a thing of shame, that it represents a cultural cringe in this country. While I can see some validity in that argument, I think it means quite the reverse. It should show, if it does not, that we are a mature society, that we are very confident in ourselves and that we are Australians. All it represents is the heritage which exists in this country and which I mentioned earlier. It does not mean that we are subservient to England or anything else of the type.

We are, to a large extent, a multicultural society in this country and we are becoming more so. We have a mix of blood from 150 to 170 countries running in our veins. Those people came here by choice. They came here by choice because they looked at Australia and saw that it was good place and, in most cases, a better place than that whence they came. They came knowing that the Union Jack flies in the corner of our flag and, to a large extent, they are quite happy with that.

I would also like to comment on the fact that it is a very beautiful flag. I had not fully appreciated that, I have to say, until this debate sprang up in the last decade or so and I looked at some of the suggestions that have been put forward if we are going to change our flag to another flag. For the first time in my life I realised how difficult it is to design a flag which is acceptable to everyone and, at the same time, pleasing to the eye.

Some of the suggestions put up, for example, by the Ausflag competition are quite ludicrous. Most countries in the world - I have only just consciously come to realise - have only two or three stripes running horizontally, vertically or, sometimes, diagonally across their flag. With the odd exception, such as France, which is well known because of the Tricolour - the red, white and blue - you would not have the faintest idea which country those flags represent. It is very confusing indeed. They seem to have every combination of colour running in every possible direction for no particular reason.

Ours is a very distinctive flag. There are not that many countries in the world that have very distinctive flags with symbols on it which actually mean something, which represent the people who live in the country and their traditions. One of the latest flags to be designed is the present flag of South Africa, which is very distinctive. It is a very complex flag, but it represents the many peoples who live in that country and the things that that country stands for. I think that is a very good flag. It is an example where a flag that has been changed with very good reason seems to be working very well.

Perhaps, in the future, someone will design such a flag for Australia. All we are asking for in this bill is that that design be put forward to the Australian people and let a majority of the Australian people in a majority of states vote on that. If that is the will of the Australian people, I, as a person who stands up for democracy, am prepared to go along with that. At present, I am quite content with the flag we have.

The previous speaker had a bit of argy-bargy with some people across the chamber that our flag was very similar to the flag of New Zealand, and I acknowledge that point. It is a valid point, but I do not necessarily think we should change our flag because it is similar to the flag of some other country. It would be a bit like changing our name because the name of Australia is an Anglo name, it is not an Aboriginal name, and it is a name that is very similar to another country′s name, namely, Austria.

I suppose that is a valid point of view to put forward, but I happen to be one who is very proud of the name Australia. A lot of the great countries of the world have names that begin with A and end in the letter A, such as America, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, et cetera - and Austria, for that matter. Just because we have a name similar to that of another country in the world, I do not think we necessarily should have to change it.

The polls that have been conducted on this seem to run consistently very strongly in favour of retaining the Australian flag. While that continues to be the case, I do not think the Australian flag will be changed. That is not to say that in 25, 50, 100 or 1,000 years time we may change to another flag. It happened in Canada. It was done relatively successfully there and, as I have said, it has happened in South Africa, with good reason. But there does not seem to be that imperative in Australia today.

Before I finish my speech, I would like to make some comments on another phenomenon that is sometimes associated with our flag - that is, the fact that some people, on occasion, choose to desecrate our flag. They often burn it in public to gain publicity for the particular cause that they are championing at the time. I think this is a very cheap way to get publicity - to desecrate Australia′s great national symbol in such a manner.

Other countries, not Australia, have penalties for doing this. For example, our near neighbour New Zealand has a penalty for doing it. Norway has a penalty for doing it. Many other countries have penalties for doing it. They vary from fines right through to, in totalitarian countries, where you are virtually shot. It is regarded as a traitorous act.

I have introduced into the parliament a private member′s bill to say that perhaps we should have penalties in this country for desecrating the flag. There are arguments on both sides as to whether we should or whether we should not. I want to say that people who desecrate the flag with impunity, for whatever reason, should give very serious consideration before doing so.

If they are doing it because they do not like the flag, I think that they should lobby legitimately in a democratic country to change the flag in a proper and a mature way. If they are doing it because they are championing some other cause, then I believe that they should not use the flag in this way, because it offends many people. We should respect the flag, whatever else we might think of it, and we should respect the thoughts of others. Some say it is just a piece of cloth. If you say that it is just a piece of cloth, you have not got a soul. It represents much more than that.

I conclude by reading the poem Keep the Flag into the Hansard. It was written anonymously. It says:

Our flag bears the stars that blaze at night
In our southern sky of blue,
And a little old flag in the corner,
That′s part of our heritage too.

It′s for the English, the Scots and the Irish
Who were sent to the end of the earth,
The rogues and the schemers, the doers, the dreamers
Who gave modern Australia birth.

And you who are shouting to change it,
Who don′t seem to understand,
It′s the flag of our law and our language
Not the flag of a far away land.

(Though there are plenty of people who′ll tell you
How, when Europe was plunged into night
The little old flag in the corner
Was their symbol of freedom and light.)

It doesn′t mean we owe allegiance
To a forgotten imperial dream,
We′ve got the stars to show where we′re going
And the old flag to show where we′ve been.