Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Robert (Bob) Baldwin (Liberal Party of Australia) - Member for Paterson (NSW)

Mr Deputy Speaker, how many of us realise what our flag, the Australian flag, truly represents? Its meaning extends across our history, our culture, our parentage and our heritage. Its image, at some point, has struck powerfully in the minds of so many Australians across generations. It is one of our defining symbols of what it means to be an Australian.

In my eyes, and, I am sure, in the eyes of the great majority of my fellow Australians, the prospect of its design being changed at the apparent drop of a political hat or on a political whim is sacrilegious. Members of this chamber, and indeed all Australians: nothing gives me more pleasure than to speak out loudly and proudly in support of our Australian flag, a flag that is bathed in truly noble history.

In 1823, when two military officers were credited with the first recorded attempt to design a national flag for Australia, the first steps towards a nationally recognisable ensign were taken. Significantly, this early design, known as the national colonial flag, featured a stylised representation of the Southern Cross on the Red Cross of St George and included the Union Jack. So began the development and the creation of our Australian flag.

In 1851, the Australasian Anti-Transportation League flag, which again featured the Southern Cross and the Union Jack, was unfurled. Three years later, in 1854, the Eureka flag was raised by aggrieved goldminers at Bakery Hill in Ballarat. That flag captured the very spirit of protest, and demonstrated the power of flags as symbols within this country. I should also mention the flag of the federation movement of the 1880s and 1890s. It gave substance to their slogan: one people, one destiny, one flag.

I think that encapsulates the spirit and feeling generated in our community towards the national ensign. Long before Federation, therefore, Australians had come to see the flag as a means by which to express and define their views, ambitions and unity. The point of this brief tour through history is to define the meaning of this flag, and to demonstrate that a defining symbol of the Australian spirit has long existed.

In 1901, the Commonwealth government held a competition to design two flags, one for official and one for naval purposes. Almost 33,000 entries from around the world were received, with five entrants sharing the prize money of £200 for similar designs. Final approval was given in 1902 for the selected flag, which contained the Union Jack, a Federation Star and the Southern Cross on a blue background, and which was known as the Blue Ensign. The design selected for the navy was known as the Red Ensign and was identical in every way except for the red background. Since 1903 the Australian national flag has remained unchanged, with one exception, being the addition in 1908 of a seventh point on the Commonwealth Star to symbolise the Commonwealth territories.

And so I believe, given the importance of maintaining a nationally acceptable flag, that legislation should match community will. Quite simply, our national flag should not be changed without reference to the very people that it represents, and I do not think you will get much argument to the contrary out there with the people.

For a good part of this century the national flag, in its unchanged form, has represented our society. Blood, sweat and tears have flowed for it. It has adorned the caskets of soldiers who fell tragically in the line of fire. It has flown proudly at the United Nations. Earlier this year, it billowed proudly at Atlanta at both the modern Olympic games and the paralympics, showing the world that Australia was indeed there.

The previous Labor government made it quite clear that they were in favour of changing the flag and raised the issue on a number of occasions. Indeed, the debate about the Australian flag was raised to the top of the flagpole as the republic debate took off at full speed just prior to the 1993 election. `Change the government, not the flag′ bumper stickers on many cars bellowed, and the chattering of many Labor members′ teeth at the thought of it quickly lowered the debate to half mast as opinion poll upon opinion poll and overriding public sentiment indicated and vindicated support for the maintenance of the current flag.

The federal coalition, through this hard-headed approach by the Labor Party, had recognised the real agenda behind the debate, and on several occasions attempted to introduce flag amendment bills requiring a plebiscite to change the flag. In government, our actions will match these sentimental words.

On Australia Day this year - a day most appropriate to putting this issue on the table and taking the political dithering and diatribe out of the debate to change the flag at a whim - the commitment was placed on the table to amend the Flags Act by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard), a leader truly patriotic to his country, his people and his flag.

The average person was clearly aggrieved that the kite-flying to change or question the value of the flag should be allowed to go on unabated, and there was a real fear that it could be changed without their say. The former Prime Minister thrust history lesson after history lesson down our throats over the flag. His understanding of history, and a lot of his political beliefs, needed boning up. Little wonder that people viewed any hint of a change to the flag with the greatest fear and trepidation. Back then, as now, there simply was no overwhelming support to change our flag from its current form.

Nobody can deny the people′s right to voice an opinion, least of all me, but change needs more than the views of one small group or launching a spurious debate and airing arguments all for political expedience. That is what this legislation will bring about - keeping the goodwill of a nation over its national symbols.

A case in point is the principally noble argument that our fellow Australians fought and died under the Australian national flag at war. The actual fact that this is not quite the case is a moot point, but the fact that such a public misnomer could be a simple catalyst to open up the possible political moves to change the flag without a vote by the people is just a critical reason for this legislation. The fact is the national flag was flown and seen during both world wars and, in addition, Australian servicemen would often see the Union Jack and the flags of our allies. There is no doubt whatsoever that Australians in the main served under their own national flag.

The Australians who did fight and die under the Australian national flag, however, were those Australian military personnel who went to Korea, Malaysia, Borneo and South Vietnam. Further, the welcome home parade for our veterans in Sydney just a few years ago with over 500 Australian flags leading the march reinforced the point. The Australian flag was held in very high esteem by our diggers serving over there and to tell them that this flag could be changed by `a good political idea at the time′ should not be allowed, and indeed would not be accepted.

Earlier this year, as we commemorated the battle of Long Tan where Aussie diggers distinguished themselves in true Anzac tradition, veterans and their families, accompanied by the old guard, like the late Eric Bushel from the East Maitland RSL and Graham Chandler, president of the Vietnam veterans, stood proud while the last post was played. This mark of respect was organised by Neil Chromarty, secretary of the Vietnam veterans service.

It was held late in the afternoon as the sun was setting. It was a cold, still evening with a lone flagpole flying the Australian flag at half mast. The last post was played intermingled with the soft melody of Waltzing Matilda. The main focus of our attention was on the Australian flag reaching out to its people against a setting sun, releasing emotions of pride and remembrance and, above all, uniting those present with this simple symbol of our nationhood. It is but one reason not to float the idea of change at the whim of a political flash of the wand, given the flash of gunfire and bayonets on the fields of war that provided our democratic freedom.

Perhaps the most critical point in this whole debate is that quite simply and surely the current Australian flag has come to be identified by all Australians as being a credible and very acceptable Australian symbol. To advocate its change will unquestionably need substantial goodwill towards an alternative design, and that goodwill should, if ever deemed acceptable, be derived by a national referendum.

However gutsy a political leader or lobby organisation would be in taking full charge in changing the flag, why leave open the door of opportunity to see the debate hijacked without the full say of the Australian people? To me, those who abide by the saying `If it ain′t broke, don′t fix it′ are missing the point entirely.

All our schools fly the Australian flag. Ask our kids what they think about changing the Australian flag. You know the answer as well as I do. They do not associate the flag with any other nation but their own. They regard the Union Jack as a reference to our common language, democratic ideals and political institutions. It should never be up to politicians in this modern day and age, or those with vested interests, to change our national flag. Only the Australian people as a whole should have that right.

The Howard government′s proposed amendment to the Flags Act will protect the right of every Australian to one day change the flag but only if they, as a clear majority, see fit and if it is done in a purely democratic manner. Unfortunately, politicians have used the argument to change the flag as a convenient tool to draw our attention away from other greater issues, full well knowing that such a suggestion alone has acted as a powder keg, blowing arguments on other subjects well away.

The previous Prime Minister was, of course, a master at this smokescreen of deception. Despite the many innuendos, no real action was undertaken to follow through on his suggestion that the Australian flag should be changed. It is not only the flag that is used in this way but also the constitution, the monarchy, our Governor-General, state governors, our traditions and our heritage. My God, what will be next?

The one thing that always stands us as Australians apart wherever we may roam is the fact that we come from a free democratic nation with freedom of speech, freedom of ideals and freedom of association. No government should have the right to take away any of these things from the people without reference to the people. This legislation will make that abundantly clear. It is within the fabric of our nation where our strengths and weaknesses lie. Yet, when it comes to an issue as basic as our national flag, no current legislation protects it from being changed without reference to the very people who own it.

The moral of this story is in its ending. I speak for the Flags Amendment Bill. The introduction of this bill was an election promise, but it is much more than that. It is a promise to all Australians that the coalition values its heritage and its values as a democratic country, the land of the free. It is a promise and a commitment for all of us. Democracy is embodied by the famous quote from an even more famous person, Abraham Lincoln, who advocated: `From the people, for the people, by the people.′ Surely an issue as important as the future of our national symbol, our national heritage and our national pride should be left to the Australian people to decide.

The Australian national flag belongs to the Australian people and has been identified with the Australian people since Federation. It belongs no more to me than it does to any other citizen of this great nation. So my influence should be no more if, or should, our flag be changed.

The flag of the Australian people should only be changed by the Australian people. Again, it is important to remember the battle cry: one people, one destiny, one flag. I commend this bill to the House on behalf of all proud Australians.