Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Ross Cameron (Liberal Party of Australia) - Member for Parramatta (NSW)

I listened with interest to the contribution of the member for Shortland (Mr Peter Morris) and the other speakers who have preceded him. I rise to support the Flags Amendment Bill, a bill which does not go so much to the mechanics of government, to the specifics of administrative reform and public policy, to questions of savings or of economics, but perhaps goes more to the more ethereal, symbolic, deeper questions of identity which we as a nation face. I do so having previously spoken in the House on the question of the restoration of civics to the curricula of our primary and high schools throughout the country and the desirability of a proper, moderate, but nonetheless firm, sense of patriotism throughout the population more widely. As the member for Chifley (Mr Price) said, patriotism is not something that can be legislated, but it is something that can, nonetheless, be nurtured and encouraged. I regard that as a proper function of this parliament and as a matter touching upon the substance of this debate.

We are talking about flags, which are on one level not a particularly functional item. They do not produce things. They are not part of any manufacturing process. They are really flimsy objects whose principal function is to blow in the wind. Yet they do play a very important role in the life not only of our nation but of all nations.

There is something mysterious about them. They have a kind of symbolic spiritual quality. They are raised to signify our rising in the morning, and fall to signify our return to repose in the evening. Flags are central to our appreciation of grief and of mourning and symbolise that in a most powerful and arresting way. Flags are raised again to symbolise our victory in battle, and fall to acknowledge our defeat.

Of all the memorials to various military campaigns and wars throughout history, I find that one of the most moving is the Iwo Jima memorial in the Arlington cemetery in the United States which is based on a photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal of six members of the 28th Marines at the moment they took the hill of Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima. It is entitled, `The struggle to drive the flag into the volcanic soil of Suribachi.′ It symbolises for Americans that point of victory in the war in the Pacific, a critical victory for us as a nation.

The Australian military forces, likewise, have a great reverence for the flag. It remains the practice, as I understand, for a flag which has been allowed to suffer the disgrace of touching the ground to be taken out by the officers and buried under the cover of night. There is a proper reverence for a symbol like the flag, which the member for Chifley touched on when he was referring to his private member′s bill which contemplated the idea of making it unlawful to burn or to deface an Australian flag.

I rise to support a greater measure of protection for our flag, for this particular flag, for three reasons. The first of those is the fact that this piece of legislation, this bill, fulfils a promise given by the coalition in the lead-up to the last election. Just in affirmation of the basic principle that we ought to do that which we promised to do, I am a supporter of the bill.

The second reason I am attached to the flag is that I think it is one of the most beautiful, one of the most effective and, dare I say, one of the most representative symbols that one could possibly conceptualise. If we turned to the five key elements of the flag, we would start with the three crosses which make up the ensign in the top canton of the flag. The Australian flag has four crosses. The first three are the red cross of St George, the white saltire of St Andrew and the red saltire of St Patrick.

The Union Jack is the source of greatest offence to some in this debate. It is a source of irritation, a source of embarrassment. The member for Chifley actually challenged members on this side to defend the presence of the Union Jack in the Australian flag. That is a challenge that I am very happy to respond to.

The meaning of the flag is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. Often our response to it tells us more about ourselves - our own prejudices, if you like - than about the flag itself. I see those three crosses very much in the language of the poem that was read into Hansard by my colleague the member for Herbert (Mr Lindsay). The crosses do not for me symbolise the unity of the United Kingdom, as much as they symbolise a set of values, a shared culture, the English language, the presence of the common law and a certain spiritual heritage which we in this nation have benefited very greatly from.

As I speak, I do so in a parliament which was not invented by those who arrived here but which was inherited from the traditions of Westminster. I speak in a chamber which is green. It is not the brilliant verdant green of the House of Commons, but the sort of burnt eucalyptus green of the Australian countryside. Likewise in the Senate, we see the burnt red symbolising the soil of the outback. Nonetheless, the institution is down to fairly fine detail, modelled on that of Westminster. I am greatly attached to the institution - not just because of emotions or sentiments but because I regard it as one of the most tested, proven and effective expressions of democratic government that can be found anywhere in the world.

So when I look upon the canton in the top corner of our flag, I do not feel embarrassed. It is something about which I feel some pride and something which does not offend me in the slightest in terms of our sense of identity and sovereignty as an Australian nation. It reflects, as has been said by previous speakers, our history, our inheritance - it refers to the foundation stones from which all of the other great things we have done as a nation have flowed.

I repudiate the view of history that we can somehow invent ourselves each new generation. I take exception to that view of history which was expressed by the member for Holt (Mr Gareth Evans) in a very distinguished work of his, entitled Australia′s foreign relations in the world of the 1990s. In that, he said:

Australia′s days of perceiving itself and being perceived by others as a European outpost, a cultural misfit isolated by its geography, are well and truly over.

I can endorse elements of that statement, but the idea that we view ourselves as a cultural misfit is something which is quite foreign to me. It tells us more about the member for Holt than it does about the mainstream people of Australia. In fact our history is something which ought be celebrated.

I am delighted by the fact that the next speaker in the House will be the Prime Minister (Mr Howard). While seeking to avoid excesses of sycophancy, I would have to say that he has done more than any other individual to restore that proper sense of history and that patriotic feeling which Australians feel deeply and instinctively about.

I note also that Professor Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne today lamented the demise of history in Australian schools and universities. That is why I want to affirm the importance of preserving a sense of history in our flag and why I regard that ensign as being beautifully democratic and indeed representative of those institutions, those values, the common law, the English language and the spiritual heritage which the three crosses of St Patrick, St Andrew and St George represent.

We turn then to the federation star - again, a beautifully non-discriminatory image which embraces each one of the six states and the territories of Australia. Finally, we go to the fourth cross in the Australian flag - the Southern Cross. Might I say that no image could have a more universal quality. It is difficult to conceptualise one that could be more ancient. When we think about the representation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the flag, it is they more than others who can feel a sense of ownership over the heavens, with their great ideas of the dreaming, of history, of traditions and of tribal values. I regard that as one of the great things about the Southern Cross. For any of us who reside in this hemisphere - and Australia is the only sovereign continent which is entirely within the hemisphere - it is a marvellous and beautifully representative image.

I take exception to the suggestion by the member for Calare (Mr Andren) that the Australian flag is somehow defective because it is not sufficiently multicultural. On the contrary, it is hard to imagine a more representative and, in my view, accessible set of images than those three crosses, the federation star and the Southern Cross. We need to remember that a flag is not an essay. A flag is not a committee created by some pro rata proportional representation.

A flag is an image. It is a snapshot - a snapshot of the values of a culture which intends to draw together and unite the nation, as my colleague said. That is why I think there is a huge risk in moving away from a flag which has so embedded itself in the hearts and minds of a very broad cross-section of Australian people.

The Canadian flag is cited as a great example of where we ought to be going as a nation. I have to say that Canada′s constitutional arrangements are not something I would wish on any nation. As high as my regard is for the Canadian people, they are looking at a province which seeks secession. They, in effect, had their hand forced by the internal divisions and rifts within their own culture and the failure to be united by a common language, and they were forced to abandon what was otherwise a beautiful flag. I find theirs an attractive flag. I quite like it. But I enjoy the fact that we still have a kind of consensus, a sense of identity, which can be encapsulated in the flag that we currently possess.

Likewise, the Republic of South Africa is cited as a great example of change, of innovation and of reform, and reference is made to the rainbow characteristic. I, like all other members, have followed closely the process of reform in South Africa. I am not as quick to jump in and declare the success of that change as others may be. I hope and pray for its success. I note that, on a statistical basis, among the member nations of the African continent, we may be more judicious to withhold our judgment for some time but to do everything within our power to support the transition to a more representative democracy.

I do not believe that we ought to be moving to some sort of quota based proportional representation in a national image which will inevitably be fragmented and which will leave some unhappy, some overrepresented and some underrepresented. As the member for Calare rightly said, it would be virtually impossible to imagine a single image which so effectively encapsulates the hopes, the aspirations, the history, the traditions and the values of a diverse country such as Australia.

The third basis upon which I support the bill is that it reflects a characteristic of this government which is a desire to bridge the gap which has emerged between the Australian people and their national parliament, their national government. There has been an increasing feeling among many Australians that, when they look at the institutions of their national government, they feel a sense of discord, a sense of dissonance, and a sense foreignness about that which is coming forth from this place. This bill, if you like, is a step back towards the people. It is just giving them some assurance that they are not going to wake up one morning and discover that, by the arbitrariness and the capriciousness of the executive, they have had the Australian flag pulled out from underneath their feet.

In that regard, it is not a perfect world. It is not a perfect image. The member for Calare took the view that we ought not to even discuss the bill until we are prepared to have much more wide-ranging discussion of the constitution, the republic and various other matters. I see evidence of a kind of utopian perfectionism coming through in some of the remarks of those around the chamber. We are not going to achieve perfection. We are looking for the best possible outcome. It is my view that this bill rightly gives the Australian people that greater measure of reassurance that we are listening, that we are not going to act in a sudden or hasty way, that their views are important to us, that we are a listening government and that we are not about to take one of the important symbols of the nation and simply arbitrarily amend or change it.

One of my colleagues, the member for Werriwa (Mr Latham), earlier this week talked about Gandhi. He mentioned the fact that Gandhi′s perception of power was not the hoarding of power; the greatest expression of power was to give it away. That is the spirit in which this bill is presented to the parliament. It is restoring to the people a greater measure of power - a greater sense in which they are the ones who own this democracy.

I want to conclude my remarks with a reference to the fact that that top corner of the flag is traditionally known as the canton - `canton′ coming from the French word meaning corner. Canton is a word that is familiar to we legislators from the Swiss experience of direct democracy in which the people gathered together not in some representative way but directly to take the decisions according to any piece of legislation or any new government initiative.

That is an appropriate reference for us here. There is a symbolism and a synergy between the canton as the top corner of the flag and the canton as the Swiss expression of direct democracy. The only real equivalent we have to the canton in our Westminster tradition is in fact the referendum. That is precisely what this bill is about. It is being put back into the hands of the people - the canton of the flag is being restored to the canton of the Australian people. For those three reasons, it gives me great pleasure to unreservedly endorse the bill and to urge other members to do the same.