Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Thursday 12 December 1996

Phillip Barresi (Liberal Party of Australia) - Member for Deakin (Vic)

I rise with great pleasure to speak on the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. Following on from the comments of the member for Hinkler (Mr Neville) in which he displayed his affection for the flag, I too concur with those comments that the Australian flag - although it has been officially with us in terms of being proclaimed only since 1953 - is a flag which has certainly touched the hearts and won the affection of all Australians. I want to speak to this bill as a sign of my support for the current flag and the pride that I have when displaying it, be it in my office or in the presence of the local RSL communities or even seeing it displayed in this chamber.

The key intent of the bill is to reflect the intention of the Australian national flag belonging to the Australian people. The Australian people, not the parliament, have a right to be consulted in any proposal to change our flag. This bill provides the parliament with a means to give the people of Australia a guarantee that, if they determine a change is needed, the current flag will always be included in any vote.

It does not really matter to a great extent whether I have an affection for the flag, whether I agree with the flag, whether I like the design or not - even though I would like to convey my opinion on the matter - but it does matter whether or not the other 18 1/2 million people in Australia have an affection for the flag and whether or not they wish to retain the flag and see it flown over our buildings and our institutions. It is their wish that must be abided by. It is their confidence that we need to take into account when looking at designs of flags and whether or not the flag should in fact be amended.

When announcing the government′s intention to introduce this legislation, the Prime Minister, John Howard, on Anzac Day earlier this year, said:

This will mean that no politician, no political party and no special interest group will be able to tamper with the design of our flag.

That is exactly what the intent is. While at this stage we have the Australian Labor Party and a whole lot of other groups saying that they have no intention of tampering with the flag, I am not so sure what the situation will be in years to come. Will legislators in the future have that same desire not to tamper with our flag? I am not confident of that eventuality and I want to make sure that the flag is protected against that level of tampering.

The Flags Amendment Bill 1996 amends the Flags Act 1953 by providing that the present Australian national flag can only be replaced if a majority of state and territory electors agree. The Flags Act 1953 formerly established the Commonwealth blue ensign as the Australian national flag. At that time, the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies, in his second reading speech, said:

The bill is very largely a formal measure which puts into legislative form what has become almost the established practice in Australia.

I say this for a very important reason. Many on the Labor side - detractors of the Australian flag - claim that the flag has only been with us since 1953 and that Australians have not fought under the flag. They have fought under the American flag, the British flag and the South African flag, but not the Australian flag. What happened in 1953 was merely a formalisation of what had taken place in previous years. The current Australian flag flew over the site for the national capital as early as 1908, on the first ships of the new navy in 1910 and at the first Australian base on the Antarctic continent - that white expanse to our south - in 1911. Since 1953, it has been flown continuously by all our territories and states, including the Australian Antarctic bases.

It is fair to say that all Australians will now have a chance to decide on the change to one of the most important national symbols - our flag. The history of the flag must also be recognised and mentioned in this debate. I would like to refer in part to it. When six Australian colonies federated to form a single Commonwealth on 1 January 1901, a new nation was born and a new century was heralded. At that time there was an urgent demand for a new emblem. An official competition was arranged for a design which attracted 32,823 entries. Five of these, which submitted almost identical designs, were placed equal first. Apart from later changes in the magnitudes of the stars and the number of points, they produced the present Australian flag. The new flag heralded Australia′s entry into nationhood.

The flag is an important symbol that has been flown in this country for many years. One of the most symbolic displays of the Australian flag is often attributed to sporting events and, in particular, to the Olympic games. It is interesting to note that since 1908 it has been raised for medal winners at every Olympic Games - a long tradition with this nation and a tradition that must be upheld.

Younger people identify the flag with Australia′s sporting success and achievement. They see their sporting heroes wrapping themselves in the flag. It is an unashamed display of pride in being Australian, pride in the flag and in what it symbolises. Who could forget the emotional scenes during the Atlanta Olympics when our sporting heroes had the flag raised. Cathy Freeman, from my electorate, wrapped herself in the flag. While there have been those who have criticised sporting heroes like Cathy Freeman for running around the track with an Aboriginal flag, the national Australian flag has always been present. Cathy Freeman has expressed the pride she has in displaying the Australian flag - and so it should be.

In my 10 months as the member for Deakin, I have had the pleasure of being part of numerous school flag presentations. It is not unique. Every member in this chamber is called on from time to time to present school flags to exchange students going overseas. When you unfurl the flag to have a photo taken, you can see the beam on their faces. They have great pride at being Australian and in being able to take this symbol overseas. The students that I presented with flags have gone to countries such as Germany, the United States, Italy, Spain and Portugal - some have gone to the Paralympics. They have all had the flag to take with them as a reminder of their nation, their culture and their identity. The exchange students have used the flag as a gift for their host families. These young Australians are proud ambassadors of our country. They take with them the Australian flag and symbols kits as a means to educate their hosts on who we are and what our emblems are all about.

The flag is very important for, every day, it represents us in hundreds of places around the world. We may not have paid diplomats or peacekeeping soldiers in these places but we have ordinary Australians overseas who proudly display the national flag - young and old alike. Its mere presence overseas is a simple but potent reminder of where we live, who we are and our role in the international community. At citizenship and other ceremonies, emotion wells up when the flag is raised on the flagpole. As Australians we need these symbols.

Although symbols may be changed and symbols may be introduced as we progress through generations, the symbols of the past must be retained. One of the symbols that emerges from time to time and that people say we should have some attachment to is the boxing kangaroo. The boxing kangaroo was a powerful symbol for that period in history when a certain event took place.

We have symbols in the form of songs which we hear every now and then. One example is the song, I still call Australia home, by great Australian singer and song writer Peter Allan. That conjures up high emotions when we hear it. These are very powerful symbols which are relevant for young and old Australians alike. The flag was our national tag in battle. Hundreds of thousands of Australians have fought under it outside Australian territory. The emotional significance of this fact must never be forgotten. As I go around to the various RSLs in my electorate - the Mitcham, Blackburn, Croydon and Ringwood RSLs - and as I watch veterans march down the streets to their memorials one can see the unashamed display and identification with this flag that takes place. It would be betraying these people if future legislators changed this national symbol without the Australian population being considered when designing a future flag. This bill gives power to the people in making changes to our flag if and when required.

I have spoken about the symbolism of the flag in the past. As we are becoming more global and opening up our borders - we see this in Europe and with the various trade pacts with NAFTA and APEC - we are becoming a more unified world. It tends to make us want to revert to some of the more tribal and more traditional ties that we have. We see this taking place in Europe. I refer particularly to the regionality that is taking place, whether in Italy, Spain, Holland or eastern Europe. As the borders are coming down people are looking for symbols and ties and they say, `Yes, I am European or Australian or American.′ They can then say that they are from a particularly territory. In Spain they are Catalonians. In northern Italy we are starting to see the emergence of the Northern League as a means of identification and unification.

These things will happen as we move towards a more globalised world. Symbolism is important. Identification with our flag will have even greater prominence as a symbol of who we are in the world. As I said earlier, we should retain our flag with great pride.

The main argument I hear from those opposite is that the blue is great, the Southern Cross is great because it symbolises where we are in the world, the seven pointed star is fine as the points represent the states and territories, but it is the little thing in the left hand corner that they do not like because it represents a colonial past which we must get rid of. As someone who does not come from Ireland, Scotland or England and does not have any ancestors from that particular part of the world, but whose ancestors are from Europe, I look at the flag as an entire entity. I do not consider the flag to be broken up into three separate components. I consider the flag in its entirety. I look at it and say, `That is my flag.′ I am proud of that flag. I do not say, `There is the Union Jack in the corner. I cannot have that because I am not British.′ That is an absurd argument. It reflects on where we have come from.

The member for Throsby (Mr Hollis) made the point, when responding to a comment by a member relating to a seven-year-old child saying, `Why change our flag? It is our flag after all.′ about whether that seven-year-old child would have the same views when he is 17, 27 or 57 years of age. I say to the member for Throsby that a flag is not something that you discard like clothing because all of a sudden you have grown out of it. A flag symbolises a nation in its entirety. In 10, 20 or 50 years time are we expected to change our flag and our symbols? Are we to end up with roving symbols of a nation, symbols which reflect how we feel at the time and the mood of the legislators?

Support for the flag is fairly widespread. An AGB McNair poll taken on 26 to 28 June this year asked 2,057 voters whether they thought the Australian flag should be changed. Some 66 per cent said no, 27 per cent said yes and seven per cent did not know. Subsequent public opinion polls, whether they be Morgan or AGB McNair polls, have come up with similar figures. Two-thirds of Australian people do not want our flag changed. It is a powerful statement. This result has been consistent all the way through.

The member for Cunningham says that it is just like New Zealand′s. The member for Hinkler (Mr Neville), who is not in the chamber at the moment, raised the issue in his speech - and I am sorry that the member for Cunningham was not in the chamber at that time. Should we change our flag just because it is similar to New Zealand′s and someone was embarrassed when they were overseas and the New Zealand flag went up rather than the Australian flag? If embarrassment is caused by that, then it should not be Australia that is embarrassed but the host who did not know what flag to put up.

There are many flags around the world that are very similar. Tricolour flags are very common. The colours can either be horizontal or vertical. I do not know the difference between a lot of them. I know that many people in this chamber would not know the difference between a lot of them.

The member for Hinkler rightly referred to flags from Germany and Scandinavia as being very similar to other flags. Does it mean that those countries should change their flags because there is some confusion in the minds of foreign visitors and dignitaries about what flag they fly? It is absurd to suggest that we should change our flag because it is similar to New Zealand′s.

As we move towards a global community and as people come to know what Australia is - that we are not Austria - and that we are in the Southern Hemisphere, there will be a recognition of all our symbols, rather than Australia simply being recognised as a country where kangaroos hop down Pitt Street.

Every now and then the Ausflag committee comes up with various designs. I have some designs in front of me at the moment. They are not unattractive designs. Some look like they would make very good rugby tops; some look like they would make very good symbols for a footy team. But they are not our flag. The symbols that often come up on these flags are symbols such as the Southern Cross - we have got the Southern Cross; another is the seven point star - we have got the seven point star; another is the kangaroo - the kangaroo is represented in our coat of arms, and rightly so. There is already a place for those symbols. Some people say that we should have a green and gold flag. The green and gold is already embodied in one of our other symbols - the national colours.

Some even raise the issue of the Union Jack not being ours. One of our national symbols is the golden wattle, but let us look at where the golden wattle is distributed on the Australian continent. It does not exist in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland or Tasmania. It partly touches the southern corner of South Australia. Does that mean that the people of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania are unrepresented in our floral emblem? Of course it does not. These symbols are representative. They are part of our identity, whether or not we have a direct connection with one of them because of our ethnicity or geography.

In making this legislative change, the Howard government seeks to end the process of removing by stealth, without consultation, important symbolic practices and traditions. Changes that took place under the previous government included removing the portrait of the Queen and removing the use of the word `royal′ in official government titles and institutions. I commend this bill to the House.