Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

The Hon. Peter Morris (Australian Labor Party) - Member for Shortland (NSW)

I am pleased to be able to participate in the debate. The opposition supports the Flags Amendment Bill, but I need to make the point that the flag that we have was not decided on by referendum. It has served and honoured this nation for some 95 years. I know of no suggestion by any government to change the flag by legislation. All this legislation does is ensure that when change comes - and change will come; younger Australians will ensure that - it will carry with it the support of a majority of Australians.

We need to look back at the origin of the flag. I have listened to some of the debate and some of the outpourings from the hearts of members opposite. It is fascinating listening to how they devise history and how they become attached to an article that really was brought together as the result of a competition set about by a tobacco company. When people set out to have a national flag the Havelock Tobacco Company put up £25 to run a national competition. Ultimately, the national government - and I will go into this in a bit more detail later - was shamed into adding to that and increasing the prize money.

But let us not have any inhibitions about this. We are Australians; that is how we do things. If we look at the horrific incidence of gambling today, which conservative governments around this country support, in some ways it would be a nasty cut to make if we go back to the origin of the flag and point to the fact that it started out as a competition put up by a tobacco company in the 1900s.

Looking more deeply at Australian history, if you take from settlement in 1788 and the radicalism of Australians, about 100 years after 1788 Australians had sovereign governments in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, but they had this radical idea that even though they had sovereign governments - and each of those sovereign governments or colonies, as they were known, had their own flag - they wanted to have a federation; they wanted to be one nation. That was pretty radical thinking in those times - a mere 100 years after settlement as a convict colony.

The 20 years or so of debate that went on about how to form a federation ensued. When those radicals became accepted and it was agreed that they should form together as a federation, one of the first things they decided was that they needed to have a national flag. This line of reasoning of having only one flag forever - it must remain forever and without that flag I will be absolutely desolate and probably die - needs to be seen in the perspective that we have had 36 different flags in use in this country. Each of those sovereign states had their own flag - and they are all still in use today.

How can you be a federation with one national flag when each state is still out there busily promoting and spending taxpayers′ money on a state flag? You wonder why new settlers in this country or people on the outside looking in are a bit confused sometimes as to the true Australian identity and the true Australian symbol. We are Australians and most of us understand it, but I am sure lots of other people do not understand what we are about. In the 100 years after settlement, federation was developed, the competition was conducted and in 1900 the Melbourne journal the Evening Herald held a competition with a prize of £25 for the best design. The selected design bears no resemblance to our current flag. It was of stars and stripes, on the pattern of the US flag.

Shortly before the opening of the first parliament there was a worldwide competition to obtain designs for two Australian flags - one for official and naval purposes and the other for the Merchant Navy Service. The competition was conducted in conjunction with a newspaper, The Review of Reviews. I can recommend that paper for those who want to go back and look at some of the history of around the turn of the century and what the debate that was going on was like. This journal claimed that the previous competition could not be taken seriously, that it was a purely local thing; and their competition was a national and international competition.

The competition was gazetted on 29 April 1901, with prize money of £200 - £75 from the Commonwealth, which ultimately had to come in and contribute; £75 from The Review of Reviews; and now £50 from the Havelock Tobacco Company. On 3 September 1901 the designs were displayed. Some 32,823 designs were submitted to the judges. The Prime Minister of the time, the Hon. Edmund Barton, announced that the prize money for the winning designs had to be equally divided between five persons whose designs were more or less similar. So the designs were combined, then displayed. Later photographs show that this flag was very similar to the one that was later officially proclaimed.

For many years the Commonwealth blue ensign was regarded as the official flag and its use on land was restricted to government establishments. The flying of the ensign on land by individuals and non-government bodies was discouraged. This is the same flag that we hear members of the government raving rhetorically about. The use of this flag by individuals or non-government bodies was discouraged, although in 1941 Prime Minister Menzies directed that there should be no restriction on the flying of the flag. How could people display this flag and pay homage to this flag when its use on land by individuals and non-government bodies was discouraged?

In February 1947, Chifley issued a press statement encouraging the application of a directive from Menzies that the flag′s greater use on public buildings, by schools and private citizens not only was permitted but would be appreciated. The proviso was that it be flown in a manner appropriate to the use of a national emblem.

Australian merchant vessels continue to fly the red ensign, but back in 1981 we had considerable debate when there was an attempt by the then Fraser government - and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would probably recall this - to eradicate the use of the red ensign. Such was the response from people of merchant mariner origin that the government had to back off, and we still allow, and quite happily, the merchant navy and merchant mariners to use the red ensign as their national symbol.

Nevertheless, it had not been clearly established that any particular flag was the national flag until 1951. King George VI approved the recommendation from the government that the Commonwealth blue ensign be adopted as the Australian flag. We can go on and on looking at the history of this matter, but the point I want to make is that, 100 years after settlement, the radicals - they had to be radicals; they could not be anything else - wanted to form one nation. They ultimately formed one nation and they then adopted a flag. But they also maintained the use of all the other flags. Many of the other flags are still in use for various occasions and purposes.

About 100 years after federation it fits the pattern that Australians of this generation are looking to some stronger form of national identity. They want something that is more Australian with which they can identify - not a flag or a symbol that has the flag of another nation on it - but something that is as uniquely Australian as the Canadian flag is unique to Canada.

No one would dispute the import and impact of the symbol of the Canadian flag, and that is what younger Australians are yearning for. That is why, at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, we saw young Australians in the audience displaying the boxing kangaroo, not our national flag. It was simply an expression of our younger Australians′ yearning to express themselves and to be seen and identified as uniquely Australian. That is simply the normal process of the development of our culture from our backgrounds, gaining a sense of independence and wanting to be seen and identified across the world as being uniquely Australian. I think that is a very healthy process.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the flag will change. It will not be now or next year but some time in the 21st century it will change. It will change when enough people, the younger generations, want it to change.

It is interesting to look back at some of the reporting around the time the flag competition was conducted. The Bulletin promoted a design, which was more or less the existing flag but, instead of the Union Jack, they had stripes like the United States flag. They were extremely upset when the current national flag was adopted, referring to it as `that motley collection of stars, stripes and angles′ - the flag that is now so revered. But that was a healthy process.

I simply point out these things to express the fact that the process is a changing one. We are a developing nation. We are a stronger, more independent, more outward looking nation than we were at federation, and we have to make room for that. The young Australians of the future will make their decisions. All this legislation does is state the process. We have no problem with that because, unless the change is acceptable to a majority of Australians, it will not be respected. So we do not have any problem with the process.

Many people give very deep thought to this issue. They feel very strongly about it. I was approached by one of my constituents, a woman who is a retiree, and I was very surprised when she said to me, "I have thought a lot about the flag and I have designed one." I thought, "Yes? This will be interesting." She asked, "Will you take it down to the parliament and show them my flag and tell them what I think about it?"

I was a bit sceptical, but I said, "All right," as I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and other members have done when you are not quite sure what you are getting because you have not seen it. I said, "Yes, I will do that." I have brought the flag with me but, before I show it, I will read the letter she handed to me along with it. It says:

This flag consists of four horizontal panels of equal depths, denoting all our people should be deemed equal.

The black and the red of the aboriginal peoples′ colours are placed on the top as they were the original inhabitants of Australia. Then the gold and green come next. The gold and green are the colours denoting all who have come here to live since. They are usually associated with us as our national colours.

The gold is also part of the aboriginal colours, but on this flag the gold and the red are placed together to symbolize a oneness or merging of all our peoples -

and, I suggest, all our cultures. It goes on:

The large star represents the federation. The others are the recognised stars of The Southern Cross for which Australia is well known throughout the world.

This flag is not in the right proportions and would need to be adjusted however I think it shows what it would look like.

The letter is signed by Mrs S. Hurley of 5 Brisbane Street, Noraville, New South Wales, 2263.

I am very proud of that lady. It had not occurred to me that people would feel so deeply and spend so much time in thought about this issue. Mr Deputy Speaker, with your forbearance - I raised this matter with the previous occupant of the chair - I would like to display this flag. There are people who feel very deeply and think very deeply about this issue. The symbolism that has gone into this flag has great meaning for Mrs Hurley, and I see a great deal of merit in it.

The reason for displaying that flag and showing it to members of the chamber is just to show that there are people out there who honour and respect our national flag. They expect at a later stage in our history that younger Australians will want to change it to something that they perceive to be uniquely Australian, and they are entitled to do that. By displaying that, it brings home to all of us the depth of thought that has gone into that consideration.

As I said, our flag is honoured across the world. It is a flag that is treated with respect and a flag that has served this nation extremely well. Like the state flags, at some stage in our history in the years ahead there will be changes as there have been changes to lots of other forms of government and the role of the states.

I also ask this question, and other speakers might like to pick up on it: where does the role of the range of state flags fit into all of this? When you go to a school, on one flagpole is the state flag and on another flagpole is the national flag. We advance the need for a strong national spirit and strong national identity in the international fora, but which one is which? I just do not understand why we still pursue this idea of state flags, the myriad of flags which have evolved which make up that total of 36. The important thing is that we have a strong, appropriate, unique and identifiable national symbol. We have that at this stage in our history. At some stage it will be something different.

I appreciate the opportunity that you gave me, Mr Deputy Speaker, to display that flag and to put my constituent′s point of view as an example of Australians thinking seriously about this issue. It means a great deal to them. I do not have the answer. I do not know what the new design will be, but I have given some thought to it. I put that to the House. I am pleased to participate in this debate to support the bill that is before the chamber.