Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

The Hon. Nicholas (Nick) Dondas AM (Country Liberal Party) - Member for the Northern Territory (NT)

I have listened with great interest this afternoon to the comments of a dozen or so honourable members who have spoken before me in this debate on the Flags Amendment Bill. Obviously, when one takes into consideration the brevity of the bill it is very interesting to hear the different concepts and philosophies that people have about our national emblem. I support the Flags Amendment Bill which will ensure the protection of our national flag. The purpose of this bill is to amend the 1953 act to ensure that the only way the flag can be replaced is if a majority of electors in each state and territory agree to the change.

If we look at the history of our national flag, we find that we had our first flag in 1788 - and we have heard many speakers refer to this this afternoon. In 1876, the flag of New South Wales became a very important emblem for the Australian continent. In 1901, the Commonwealth decided to hold a design competition for two flags - one for official and naval purposes and the other for merchant ships. My understanding from reading some of the history of that competition is that the prize was put up by a tobacco company.

In 1902, Edward VII approved the design which comprised the blue ensign, the Union Jack, the federation star and the Southern Cross on a blue background. For 50 years, both flags were used on land and sea. It was not until the passing of the Flags Act 1953 that the Commonwealth blue ensign became the official national flag. Today, the Australian flags of the original states of the Federation have the Union Jack as part of their designs, but the new flags adopted by the territories do not.

I will talk about the Northern Territory flag for a moment. It has the stars of the Southern Cross as part of its design. The colours on the flag are white, black and ochre. The white and black represent the people of the Northern Territory and the ochre represents the colour of the earth in the Northern Territory.

In 1902, the national flag had on it a six pointed star - the federation star. In 1908, the star was changed to have seven points - six points for the states and the seventh point representing the territories. In my eyes, the template of the national flag is one of multicultural design. Some members were quite surprised when I brought it to their attention that the stars of the Southern Cross were named after letters in the Greek alphabet. Did you did know that?

The five stars are: alpha, beta, gamma, delta and epsilon. The Southern Cross, which has been a symbol of our region, was obviously named many centuries ago by Greek astronomers. I tried to develop a further line on that, but, unfortunately, I ran out of time. The template of the Australian flag and the red ensign are quite clearly referred to in a book I have with me, so that cannot be disputed.

This afternoon, I heard members talk about the flag of St Andrew, the flag of St George and the flag of St Patrick. I was told by a colleague when I was in the United Kingdom some years ago that St Andrew, who is the patron saint of Scotland, was a Greek. That astounds quite a number of my Scottish friends. Apparently it is true. St Andrew's bones were found floating around the North Sea about seven centuries ago. It is certainly very interesting when you delve into the history of the flag. Flags certainly have a lot of history.

A flag expresses one's pride. Members who have spoken in this debate this afternoon, and the Australian community, have expressed a great deal of pride in our national flag. The time when we have a great deal of pride is when the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games are on and an Australian wins an event and the Australian flag goes up and the Australian anthem is played. Australians, as well as the successful competitor, feel a great deal of pride at that time.

There have been other flags that have been adopted over the last few years. The Eureka flag was a very important symbol of our colonial history. Other flags have been used from time to time. I am sorry that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Mr Bruce Scott) is not here. I would like to read into Hansard a passage from a very interesting story in a book called The Australian Flag in Wartime, because other members have spoken this afternoon about the wars that Australian men and women have fought in and the various flags that they fought under. The passage from the book says:

An Australia blue ensign was raised in Singapore when the Japanese surrender was announced in 1945. This flag had been made secretly by Australian prisoners of war, who stitched a small Union Jack that had escaped the notice of the Japanese guards onto a piece of blue material obtained from Japanese stores. White handkerchiefs from Red Cross parcels made up the stars. The flag was raised over the `X3' working camp at Bukit Panjang and later over the Australian Imperial Forces' headquarters at Changi. This flag is among the many historic flags that are preserved at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

I understand that the flag that was made by those prisoners of war in Singapore at the time is on display in a glass case at the War Memorial. Just think of what the Japanese custodians may have done to those prisoners.

Throughout the world, in conflict and in joy, the Australian national flag is very well respected and, as I said, a lot of people have a lot of pride in it. I for one do support the amending bill moved by the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr Jull) to ensure that, if the flag is ever going to be changed for any reason, the matter comes back to the parliament. If the parliament cannot decide that the changes are necessary, then I would accept the recommendation that has been made by other members of this House that maybe a referendum should be held on the matter.

It is a very deep-rooted part of Australia's history. We are a country that is just over 200 years old. Other countries throughout the Commonwealth are 400 and 500 years old and steeped in history. If we are going to leave a legacy to our children, then I believe that we must make a firm stand now. That is what I believe the coalition is doing. In the past few years, there has been discussion and debate on the probability of our national flag being changed or even being got rid of.

As you know, I am of ethnic, of Greek, origin. The Union Jack really does not have a great deal of symbolic realism to me. But being born in Australia and being an Australian, having the Union Jack on the flag certainly does symbolise the true heritage of this country. It is for that reason that I would fight tooth and nail to make sure that, if the flag was ever going to be changed, it would be changed only by the will of the Australian community. With those words, I have no hesitation in supporting the amending bill moved by the minister.