Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Peter Lindsay (Liberal Party of Australia) - Member for Herbert (Qld)

I thought I might start this speech by responding in a small way to the comments of the member for Calare (Mr Andren). I remember that, some five months ago when I was sitting around a camp fire in the Australian bush with a blazing fire under the Australian stars a member of the group read out this piece of poetry by an unknown author. I thought I might read it into the record this morning, because it refers specifically to the Australian flag. It goes like this:

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.

I think that pretty well sums up how so many people in Australia feel about the current Australian flag.

The Flags Amendment Bill that we are considering at the moment is the Howard government keeping its election promise to make the Australian flag much harder to change. When the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) originally announced this legislative amendment, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) immediately announced Labor would not oppose this legislation - even though for more than a decade now Labor have persistently done so. At the same time, a spokeswoman for the Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Kernot, said the Democrats retained an open mind on the need for a referendum on this matter.

I would think that the Labor Party should be mindful of why their recent primary vote fell to its lowest level since 1913. The former Prime Minister′s penchant for changing Australian icons is, I am sure, just another reason why the Australian people turned against the ALP on 2 March. I trust the Democrats hear the same message.

In researching today′s speech, I believe I have unearthed a conspiracy against Queensland that involves New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be aware that I represent Townsville, the capital city of North Queensland, and I have previously told this House of the importance of Townsville. So it will not surprise you when I tell you that the Australian flag was first flown in Flinders Street, Townsville, North Queensland.

At that time the result of a competition for an Australian flag was announced. The then Governor-General, the Rt Hon. John Hope - the Earl of Hopetoun - was touring the north and was in Townsville. An enterprising Townsville sailmaker, William McKenzie, immediately produced the flag and the Governor-General accepted an invitation to fly the flag for the first time.

Now, for the first part of this conspiracy, enter the Victorians. I am advised that history shows that the Victorians heard about what was to happen in Townsville and they too made up a flag in Melbourne. They invited the Governor-General′s wife to fly the flag a day earlier. However, this had no official status and under flag protocol at the time the Governor-General′s wife was not recognised.

Now, for the second part of the conspiracy, enter the New South Welshmen. In 1922 a request was received from the national museum, then located in Sydney. They asked Townsville to send Australia′s first flag to their museum. The local Townsville council, in the national interest, decided to relinquish custodianship of this piece of history. The flag was duly forwarded to Sydney. Sadly, I report it has never been seen again.

Now enter the Australian Capital Territory. The Commonwealth′s own publication on the Australian national flag wrongly claims that the flag was first flown on the Exhibition Building in Melbourne. This was despite research by the eminent Rt Hon. Sir Ninian Stephen, who clearly gives credit to Townsville as the first city in Australia to fly the Australian flag.

The Returned Services League clubs in Townsville, Thuringowa and Magnetic Island regions have made it very clear to me - as I am sure RSL clubs have to members throughout Australia - that they object strongly to any changes to the Australian national flag. The Secretary of the Magnetic Island RSL, Mr Rae Dalliston, said in a letter to me earlier this month:

A motion was moved, seconded and passed by all members present to "...not support any change to our National Flag in any way."

Mr Dalliston went on to say:

As most of our members have served Australia in all wars since the inception of our National Flag, and in peace keeping duties throughout the world, I feel sure each and every one of us felt very proud of the flag we served under.

I have also received a similar response from the secretary of the Townsville RSL.

It was on Anzac Day of this year that the Prime Minister reaffirmed this government′s commitment to all Australians that they would be consulted in the form of a referendum or plebiscite before any changes to the national flag are made. Anzac Day is the most important day of the year for RSLs throughout Australia. It is an important day for all Australians, but especially for our veterans and our Defence Force personnel.

This House has heard in the past from a number of members on this issue and on whether or not the Australian flag should be changed. Many have harked back to the days of World War I - in particular, Gallipoli - because those days were defining moments for Australia in terms of our national identity. Each year hundreds of Australians, many of them young backpackers, travel to Gallipoli to commemorate the occasion, to visit the historical sites, to walk the old trenches and to pray and reflect on what took place there so many years ago. In recent years we have seen attendances at Anzac Day marches and dawn services grow even stronger. That growth has been predominantly from within the ranks of Australia′s youth.

But just as we are a nation beginning to look afresh at our own history - last year′s VP 50 celebrations, which originated from Townsville, were a great example of that - we should also remember that Australian personnel have also been involved in more recent theatres of conflict. While healthy debate will continue as to which flag our Anzac soldiers saw and fought the most under - the British Union Jack or the Australian blue ensign - there is no doubt which flag Australia′s recent peacekeeping contributions in places such as Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda and the Gulf were conducted under on behalf of the United Nations.

In 1993, Australian defence personnel from 1 Battalion served in Baidoa, Somalia, as part of a United Nations humanitarian mission. When the Australians arrived in Baidoa, they arrived in a town that had ceased to function and where people were literally dying in the streets. After years of civil war the government of Somalia had collapsed and with it all sense of organised infrastructure. There were no hospitals, no police force and no legal system. Armed gangs of bandits roamed throughout the cities and country. Villages were attacked and destroyed for their food. The 1 Battalion were given command of an area of operation of some 18,000 square kilometres to secure. They did it in a wonderful way, and there have been some recent awards for that. They served under the flag we are talking about at this point. The Australian flag is just as important and holds just as much meaning to current serving members of the Australian Defence Force and their families as it does to our veterans, retired Defence Force members and their families.

It will be a long time before Australia forgets the record medal winning performances of our Atlanta Olympics athletes. There were many truly great moments for Australia throughout the games: Cathy Freeman′s silver medal in the 400 metres, gold for the Australian women′s hockey team and the Boomers′ fantastic win against Croatia in the men′s basketball. But there was no greater moment than that of Kieren Perkins in the 1500-metre freestyle. He had been written off long before the start of the race by most commentators and media. Like so many other Australians, I hoped Perkins would win, but silently thought otherwise. I was never so pleased to be wrong in my life. It was an amazing, gutsy effort from Perkins to win gold at Atlanta, as it was with all of our athletes - win, lose or draw.

The one thing they all had in common was the pride they placed in the Australian flag - our national symbol. When you look at the footage of all the welcome home parades held throughout Australia for our athletes, the thing that stands out amongst all others is the sea of Australian flags being held high.

Australia has already begun the countdown to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Australia will be in the international spotlight, and Sydney will be the stage for a sporting and cultural celebration that all Australians will participate in. There will be many symbols on display throughout that time, defining what it is that makes us Australian.

It was interesting to see the reaction back here in Australia to some of the symbols of Australia on display during the closing ceremony in Atlanta - the kangaroo, the waratah, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, the didgeridoo, the surf and the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Australians define themselves and who they are in different ways and through different symbols. For some it is the surf and the sand, while for others it is the outback and the earth. But the one symbol Australian athletes and supporters have united around is the Australian flag.

John Howard and the coalition gave a commitment earlier this year to implement a legislative change protecting the national flag and ensuring the flag cannot be changed without the approval of the Australian people voting at a referendum or plebiscite. I support this legislation. In our pre-election policy statement on veterans′ affairs the coalition said:

The Australian national flag, as a national symbol, belongs to the Australian people, not the Prime Minister or the Government of the day.
Earlier this year sections of the media bagged the announcement that we would be introducing amendments to the act as political grandstanding and gimmickry. The Australian of 20 June asked the question:

Why legislate if everyone agrees and there is no threat to the flag?

The answer in the same article claimed that the government was indulging in a bit of political populism. The Australian said:

It will dress up the legislation, which fulfils an election promise, by arguing that our most important national symbol can be changed now merely by an amendment to the Flags Act.

This is not some kind of stunt. This is not an attempt to sidetrack people′s attention away from the 9.9 out of 10 coalition budget. We want people to focus on the necessary decisions the opposition was not brave enough to take in its 13 years of government.

The amendments will be made because they are necessary. A good example of just how necessary they are cropped up earlier this year when New South Wales Premier Bob Carr suggested abandoning Advance Australia Fair in favour of Waltzing Matilda as our national anthem for the 2000 Olympics. It was interesting to note that other ALP politicians distanced themselves very quickly from the suggestion and from Mr Carr. If Bob Carr could have his way, he would prefer to have a national anthem about a suicidal sheep thief. The national anthem does not, and should not, belong to any one state minister.

The same goes for the Australian flag, which is just as much a symbol of who we are as the national anthem is. These legislative changes will take the decision out of the hands of the Bob Carrs of Australia and put the power in the hands of the people - where it should be.

Along with the Prime Minister, I describe myself as an unashamed and passionate supporter of the present Australian flag. While I will always support and stand by the present Australian flag, neither I nor any other individual has ownership over it. As with all things in the democratic process, it is the will of the people as a whole which must inevitably prevail. While I hope I never see the day the Australian flag changes its current form, I will fully respect the result of a referendum which shows that a majority of Australian people believe otherwise. May I just finish with the last two lines of the verse that I started with on our current flag:

We′ve got the stars to show where we′re going
And the old flag to show where we′ve been.

I commend the bill to the House.