Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Peter Andren (Independent) - Member for Calare (NSW)

Even when and if this Flags Amendment Bill is passed, it would offer the Australian flag no real protection. This bill attempts to ensure the Australian national flag cannot be changed except by a vote of a majority of state and territory electors. However, the amendments proposed here could be repealed or replaced in the normal way by the parliament.

If enacted, this bill could not legally bind a future government, and there is a division of legal opinion as to whether in fact the Flags Amendment Bill 1996 is unconstitutional because it seeks to invest legislative power in the people, who are not recognised as part of the legislative arm of the Commonwealth in the constitution.

Another body of opinion suggests the bill may not be unconstitutional because it merely limits delegation of legislative power to an alternative legislature made up of the Queen, the Senate, the House of Representatives and, outside the Commonwealth legislative power, the people.

While it is admirable that the people of Australia are included in any debate on the flag of this nation, one must ask why the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) feels it necessary to give the current flag such protection. If most Australians were proud of the flag and felt it appropriate and representative of this country in the l990s, then there would be no need to protect it. The recent Olympic Games in Atlanta showed how confusing our national emblem is when it was hoisted alongside the New Zealand flag in a medals ceremony.

Any debate over a republic in this country must also include debate on our constitution, federation, and our national symbols, including flag and perhaps anthem. There is division within our multicultural society about the symbols that best represent us heading into the next century. I too am part of a multicultural heritage that goes back to Swedish grandfathers. While I am among the first to say the flag has served us well throughout this century, I am aware that there are strong feelings within the community that the current national flag does not represent all the roots, all the aspirations, now represented within our community.

It is often said that the national flag should not change because Australians have fought and died under it in the wars of this century. But which flag are we talking about? Our forces have in fact fought under a variety of ensigns, including the British Royal Air Force flag, the British navy ensign, the Union Jack and both Australian red and blue ensigns. Rather than single out the current flag for special protection, we should be preparing to debate the pros and cons of our current flag and constitution.

A recent people′s convention in Bathurst, part of which I attended, drew up a series of recommendations, handed to the Attorney-General (Mr Williams), calling for a people′s convention next year to discuss the constitution. This event mirrored one in Bathurst exactly 100 years ago that was organised by locals frustrated at the slow rate of progress towards federation. I am glad to see that the government has responded to similar frustration in the community about the slowness of moves to debate the centenary of Federation and what, if any, changes should occur to our constitution and our head of state and whether we should remain a constitutional monarchy.

However, I believe a plebiscite before any national convention is necessary so we know the extent of support - one way or the other - for changes to our constitution. I have grave doubts about a national convention. With some appointed and some by some means elected, it is fraught with dangers that could cause divisions rather than reach any consensus on a future constitutional path. I believe we must respect the feelings and loyalties of those generations for whom the monarchy and flag have meant so much. But just as we now have our national anthem, so too must we move on eventually as a nation from puberty to adulthood.

I did not realise the starkness of Australia′s position in this regard until I received this document from Ausflag, with an accompanying note from board member, Nick Greiner. The document is labelled Growing Up and it details the flags of several nations, including the United States, India, Malaysia, Canada, Solomon Islands, Ireland, Ghana, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and South Africa. It shows the former flags. For instance: `United States. Colonised 1607.′ And, in the words of Ausflag: `Grew up: 1776.′ That was when the United Kingdom′s ensign disappeared essentially from the national flag. So it was with Malaysia, India and right through. But there at the bottom: `Australia. Colonised 1788. Grew up: ?.′ That essentially is the position we are in heading into the next century.

Now that we are debating the multicultural basis of this country and how proud we are of those new arrivals in our country, we must be taking on board the sorts of sentiments that are out there about the need, if not to change, to at least talk about the change and democratically - if that be the wish - look seriously at it, because as a nation we are being left very far behind in terms of our national identity symbols.

Such a national convention, after a national plebiscite, should also consider the national flag. It should also consider that the wish by Cathy Freeman to embrace the Aboriginal flag is no less an expression of patriotism than our sailors fighting under the British navy ensign at various stages during World War II or Sydney Marconi soccer players having Italian national colours in their insignia. I wish we could discuss the possibility of including all our ethnic derivatives within a new flag at the same time we discuss the form a republic might take. That perhaps is impossible, given our rich and various ethnic mix.

Another emerging anachronism for our national symbols is that before too long we and New Zealand will be the only countries with the Queen′s portrait on our currency. Britain itself will lose that distinction with the Eurodollar. The current blue Australian flag is but one of several Australian flags. There is the Australian white ensign, the Royal Australian Air Force ensign, the Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag. Under section 5 of the Flags Act, the Governor-General may, by proclamation, appoint such other flags and ensigns as he or she sees fit.

We have more than 20 other official flags: Customs, Norfolk Island, flags of the state and state governors, the Northern Territory, the ACT, the Governor-General′s flag and the Queen′s personal flag. So don′t let us question Cathy Freeman′s right to celebrate her Aboriginality through her people′s flag which is within the nation. She is not questioning, and no-one should question, her commitment to Australia. Would we question Laurie Daly running a lap of Suncorp Stadium with the state flag should he win the State of Origin match?

The government and the Prime Minister can choose to ignore these issues, and no doubt he would be in step with many of his supporters in Bennelong and in the neighbouring seats of Warringah and Mackellar across Sydney′s North Shore. And I admit there would be strong support for the status quo within my electorate. But, as one moves about this country, you realise there is a significant part of Australia out there which, while respecting the tradition of the ties with the monarch, certainly does not share the same enthusiasm.

Most Australians realise we have moved on from the 1950s when Prime Minister Menzies officially endorsed the blue ensign as our official flag. Most Australians realise the time has come to, at the very least, take a good hard look at our symbols and whether they are representative of Australia today and as we head into the new century. Putting your head in the sand and ignoring it will not make these issues go away.

Legislation - such as this bill heralds - is not the way to go. I really wonder why there is such urgency to get this bill through. Was a similar bill introduced to protect our national anthem prior to the 1977 referendum on a new national song?

Passing a flags bill will not result in any surge in public support and enthusiasm for the existing flag if people do not believe the existing design is appropriate to Australia today. I do not really see the need in declaring 3 September national flag day unless it was specifically designed to cement the current flag in the national psyche. At a time we are debating our symbols and our constitution, it does not seem to me there is any great imperative for this bill. No doubt we are very proud of our flag and love it. But is it our flag of tomorrow and next century? Is it one that the majority of young people of Australia today take great pride in?

It is all very well for the members of this House to sit here and pass judgment. But, let′s face it, the majority of us are white Anglo-Saxon and approaching or well over the age of 40 - typical but hardly representative for a House of Representatives. And that is with due regard to some of our younger members in the House at the moment.

Once again you can ignore reality and pretend all your life, but the fact is many Australians want to have a say on this and many other issues that determine our national identity. They deserve to have their say and not have us sit here and make such important decisions for them.

When would we hold a flag referendum? With the next general election? It would completely cloud a fair assessment of the election issues. Is this the government′s intent? To obfuscate the election debate by dragging a red herring through the election campaign perhaps? The flag referendum would become a party political debate when it warrants a far more considered investigation - and an independent referendum or plebiscite.

In his explanatory memorandum to this bill the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr Jull) says the purpose of this bill is to amend the Flags Act. When it comes to the crunch, you have to ask why it is necessary to pass such a bill in the first place. Can you imagine the Americans feeling it necessary to protect the Star-Spangled Banner? Would the French feel it necessary to enshrine the Tricolour in legislation? Even among our fellow Commonwealth nations, look at the pride the Canadians have in their maple leaf and look at how South Africa has so enthusiastically embraced the nation′s new multicultural flag - and its new constitution just yesterday in Sharpeville.

Really there is only one part of our flag that I consider would unite a majority of Australians today. One aspect that people would really be prepared to fight for, that is a recognised symbol of this southern continent and that stirs patriotism and pride in the nation is the Southern Cross. Perhaps this is the symbol we should be protecting and using as a basis for a new flag for this nation.

Quite simply, the Flags Amendment Bill is an unnecessary waste of time that is out of step with national thinking. At last reports I saw that about 60 per cent want a new symbol. We should not hide from that fact; we should openly debate it. Even if it is passed, this bill will have no real power.

As we head towards the centenary of Federation and with so many Australians now keen for this nation to become a republic, it is time we reviewed all the symbols and structures that define us as a nation - not in a piecemeal fashion but in a considered cooperative manner. I am certainly not an advocate for changing everything, but there comes an appropriate time when it is worth reviewing the symbols that identify us.

Again we have seen in South Africa how, by acting at the appropriate time and taking the appropriate measures, governments showing real vision and leadership can help redefine and unite a nation, at the same time lifting its standing in the world order.

It is time this parliament took a similar bold stand rather than simply fiddle about the edges with a bill like this. Our gold medallists from Atlanta are in majority in favour of a new flag - embracing elements of the existing one perhaps but wanting change. They are overwhelmingly in favour of retaining our anthem. These are the sentiments out there among our young as we head into the new century - as we approach Sydney 2000.

Let us embrace that feeling of our young, while we respect the views of the older residents, but let us not fiddle around the edges and hang on too long. In my former game - journalism - one had to update sometimes on an hourly basis. It is time for an update. I do not perhaps feel the passion for change as do others in the community, but I must accept that it is there.

Let us not be locked into an era that has changed; let us open up the debate and review our symbols, including the flag. Sure, we should allow the people of Australia to decide, but let us not be too cute by half and put up pious legislation that, to quote from the minister′s second reading speech, `provides the people of Australia with a guarantee that they will decide if their national flag should be changed′.

There is no conspiracy afoot to change the flag by stealth, but there is a majority feeling out there that change should be made - and that should be tested the sooner the better. The second reading speech is wrapped in motherhood statements with which no-one has a problem. I ask: what is the purpose of this bill? Of course the flag should not be changed without a popular vote. But let us get our priorities right. Let us test the poll-evidenced climate for change of constitution, flag and head of state by taking all to a plebiscite, and then settle down to a convention on all these issues in one debate - not swim against the tide of public sentiment as this bill suggests.