Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996

Warren Truss (National Party of Australia) - Member for Wide Bay (Qld)

Mr Deputy Speaker, I too am delighted to speak in support of this quite historic piece of proposed legislation, the Flags Amendment Bill, to put in place measures to protect the design of the Australian flag. The flag evokes deep feelings of loyalty and commitment among Australians. We fly our flag with pride because it is the symbol of our country and we are proud of our country.

As Australians, we live in a wonderful country with bountiful opportunities. Much of our past, our present, and our aspirations for the future, are incorporated in the symbolism of the design of our flag.

The flag is the symbol of our country, but of itself it contains a great deal of symbolism. When you hear critics of the flag you would think that it was almost entirely dominated by the Union Jack. In fact, the Southern Cross is perhaps the most significant symbol on our flag, taking up over half of its area. Australia is called the `Land under the Southern Cross′, so it is a most fitting symbol for us to have on our national banner.

The Federation Star tells the world a great deal about Australia. We are a federation of states rather than one country divided up into provinces, as happens in so many other national federations. We have stars on our flag - stars being the symbol of high goals and high ambitions. We aim high and have high objectives for our country.

We also have on our flag the Union Jack, which, as the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Hawker) commented, is itself a combination of symbols which reflect something of the past of our country - the fact that we are a part of the British Commonwealth of Nations and the contribution that Britain made to our early settlement.

But in these days, when we talk about Australia being a multicultural country, the Union Jack also fills another role. It demonstrates that Australia is a country made up of people who have come here from other parts of the world. It has often been said that the history of Australia is a chronicle of 200 years of immigration. We have on our flag the flag of another country to demonstrate the contribution that people from other parts of the world have made in building the great Australia that we know and love today.

So those symbols have been put together in a single pennant - our national flag. We fly that flag with pride because of the way in which it symbolises the achievements and the aspirations of our country. Our flag has been taken with our soldiers into battle, our statesmen into negotiation, our sportsmen into victory. It has been there on occasions of great national pride. It has been there on occasions of great celebrations. It has also been there when our nation has been in sorrow. Is it any wonder, therefore, that Australians have become attached to their flag? Is it any wonder, therefore, that it evokes such deep feelings of loyalty and commitment?

It should come as a surprise then to observers around the world that it should even be necessary for this parliament to be considering legislation to ensure that the flag′s design is not just changed on the whim of a Prime Minister or on the whim of a parliament. One would have thought that after flying proudly in this country for almost a century it would be utterly entrenched, but this legislation has become necessary because it was only this time last year that we had a Prime Minister who had no commitment to the flag, who openly advocated that it should be changed and who travelled around the world persuading other countries and talking in other parts of the world about the inappropriateness of our flag.

He was unable to persuade Australians that their flag needed to be changed, but he never ceased, it seems, when overseas to be critical of the flag. His attempts to rewrite history, to somehow or other make the flag irrelevant, were quite pathetic. His efforts to demean the contribution of the early pioneers, to reinvent history to support his own theories, were part of a very tragic era for our country. I support the current Prime Minister (Mr Howard), who has refused to accept the black armband version of our history. He is not ashamed of our past and neither am I.

It is true that not everything that has happened since Australia was settled by Europeans has been perfect. Our treatment of our Aboriginal people, for instance, has often been criticised, but I think even there some of the criticism is unfairly placed. It is true that, with the benefit of hindsight, we know some things that were done at that time could have been done better, but I have no doubt that there were many Australians who were diligently attempting to assist the Aboriginal people. Even when it was taking children away from their families, it was done with the best of intent with the view that it was the best way to make a better life for the Aboriginal people.

So we have no reason to be ashamed of the diligence and the efforts of past Australians, even when on occasions we may have failed. To achieve great success, sometimes we have to dare to be different and sometimes that daring can come unstuck. But that is all a part of our proud past, the proud traditions of our country.

Ours is, indeed, a young nation capable of standing on its own feet, so we need to have a flag that we can revere. A very significant element of a country′s uniting behind its flag is its permanence. The fact is that we have had the one flag since Federation and it continues to fly proudly above our buildings and on occasions of national significance. That creates a unity between the past and the present. The fact that what we plan today and know will come to fruition also under this same flag binds us with the future.

There is very significant support for the Australian flag. A recent public opinion poll by AGB McNair demonstrates that 66 per cent of the Australian people support the design of the existing flag and only 27 per cent oppose it. It is interesting to note that that sort of survey was taken in spite of the campaign organised by the former Prime Minister to cast reflections on the suitability of the design. Despite the efforts that have been put in by the former Prime Minister and others to design alternative flags, none of those have won any degree of support whatsoever.

It was especially appropriate that on Anzac Day this year the Prime Minister committed the new federal government to take action, as promised in its election platform, to protect our great national symbol - the Australian flag. He said on 25 April:

Legislation will be introduced early in the life of the new parliament to ensure that the Australian flag cannot be changed without the approval of all the Australian people voting at a referendum or a plebiscite. 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.

Tonight, we are proudly seeing the fulfilment of the Prime Minister′s promise and this legislation is being debated before the House.

If we were ever to seek to change our flag, there would be an even greater rejection of whatever design might be chosen than of the design of our current flag. I have seen almost on a monthly basis somebody come forward with a new design, and it is always decried by those who see it. Even in this parliament earlier today we saw another design, which looked like it belonged more to a used car sale than on top of our national parliamentary building, being paraded as another possible alternative. There have been some pretty graphic designs. There has been some skilful use of various symbols to develop banners which might appeal to some, but it is impossible to believe that any of those designs could ever capture the support of the Australian people and win a referendum.

One of the features of this legislation that I think is very important, and that I am delighted to see included, is the requirement that, if there were to be a referendum for a new flag, the existing design must be included in the opinion poll. The existing design must be one of those put to the Australian people for consideration. I think that is the only fair way that this sort of matter can be considered, and I am delighted that it has also been included as part of this legislation.

Even if some day in the future our country decides to become a republic, our flag would be none the less relevant. Surely the Southern Cross and the federation star would be just as relevant as they are today. Their symbolism would perhaps be of even greater importance. But the Union Jack would also retain its relevance. It would still reflect on our history. I have not heard too many proposals which suggest that, even if Australia were to become a republic, it would withdraw from the British Commonwealth of Nations. So that symbolism would still remain.

Perhaps, most importantly, our multiculturalism would still be with us even if we were to become a republic. So it is quite appropriate that through the presence of the Union Jack on our flag we recognise the contribution of people from around the world to the country that we know and enjoy today. I believe that this flag has served us well, despite the comings and goings of government, despite wars and despite times of great hardship. And it would serve us just as well and just as effectively if the changes in the future were to include a republic.

We could fly this flag just as proudly on the day when our president or our Governor-General with different powers were sworn into office as we can today when our Head of State is a representative of the Queen of Australia. So this design will not wear out. It will not reach a magic use by date. Indeed, as the decades pass its symbolism and importance grow all the stronger. Future generations become more committed to it as they learn of the achievements of our country in the past and as they recognise their obligation as young Australians to help contribute towards building a better country.

I think it is a very important tradition that has been developed in Australian schools, but is sadly falling into disuse in some places, that our flag is raised preferably every morning; that there is a pledge of allegiance; and that young people recognise that they also have commitments and responsibilities as Australian citizens. By flying the flag in positions of prominence, we recognise our commitment to our country. By raising the flag we are also making our own commitment towards making our country an even better place in which to live.

I would like to conclude by amplifying that matter. A constituent came to me only a few weeks ago saying that the teacher of his seven-year-old son had raised in class whether the design of the Australian flag should be changed. His seven-year-old expressed dismay to his father that anyone should want to change the flag. The father, anxious to engage his son in conversation about these important matters of national spirit, asked him why we should keep the existing flag. His son′s answer was quite simple but profound. He said, `Because it′s ours.′ This seven-year-old wanted to keep the flag because it′s ours.

It is ours because it has been with Australia since our Federation. It is ours because we took it into battle. It is ours because we take it into international negotiations. It is ours because it has been with us when our sportsmen have achieved great victory. It is ours because it has been with us on occasions of great national significance. It is ours because it has been with us when there have been times of sorrow. And it is ours because Australians feel deeply committed to it.

This legislation will help ensure that it will stay ours and theirs for future generations unless there is a vote to change it. I commend the government on bringing this legislation before the parliament and the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr Jull) for the way in which he has piloted it through this chamber. I commend the bill to the House.