The year of the flag

The Age, 26 January 1998.

By Claire Miller

There are few symbols more potent of nationhood than a country′s flag. But as Australians today mark 210 years since British settlement, a new push is underway to change the standard under which Australians have lived and died since 1953.

Yesterday, 109 potential designs were unveiled with a call to Australians to choose which one best represents and unifies a nation grown vastly different from its colonial roots.

The campaign is being spearheaded by Ausflag, a non-profit, voluntary organisation, in the hope that Australia will welcome the new millennium, the Olympic Games and the centenary of Federation with a flag stripped of the Union Jack.

The co-chairman of Ausflag′s board and a former New South Wales Premier, Mr Nick Greiner, said that as an independent, multicultural nation, Australia should have its own flag without deference to past colonial rule.

"There are no other self-respecting countries in the world that have the flag of another country that was previously involved in their country," Mr Greiner said. "They have all grown out of it, with the exception of New Zealand."

The 109 designs were unveiled yesterday at exhibitions in Sydney and Perth; exhibitions will open in other capital cities over the next few months. Australians are being asked to nominate their favorite at the exhibitions or via the Internet, with three winners to be announced later this year.

Of the proposed designs, 100 were chosen from among 2500 entries in a national competition for professional designers, who were asked to come up with an internationally distinctive flag that reflects the modern Australian identity and unity. The other nine designs from past competitions were considered of lasting merit.

The competition brief called for simplicity, clarity of color, timelessness and respect for the history, institutions and character of Australia. The flag must also be recognisable whether hanging limp on a windless day, fluttering in a stiff breeze, draped horizontally over a coffin in state funerals or reduced to postage-stamp size. It must be suitable for solemn or grand occasions of state, but also lend itself to festivity and celebration.

Indigenous reconciliation was a key theme, without necessarily adopting the Aboriginal flag, its colors or symbols. The Southern Cross, for example, is a significant motif in Aboriginal dreaming.

The chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Mr Gatjil Djerrkura, who is also on the Ausflag board, said indigenous Australians had no pride in the current flag.

"We are trying to learn from the past and create a future that will be prosperous but somewhat united for us all," he said. "That is not possible with the symbol of colonial power there."

Former ATSIC chairwoman Dr Lois O′Donoghue also said that most Aborigines can′t relate to the flag because it represented a narrow slice of the country′s history.

"For us, it symbolises dispossession and oppression," she said, later adding: "I reject the proposal that we are risking our sense of historical place by seeking a new flag."

Dr O′Donoghue also attacked Mr Howard for promising to move the reconciliation process forward but not delivering ideas on how to do it.

"I think we have a right to expect the Prime Minister - our elected national leader - to understand that the country is in the mood to define an identity for ourselves that is in no way ambiguous," she said.

"I′m pleased to see that many of the designs on display here today include a reference to indigenous culture or the colours of the indigenous flags. But the most important thing is that our new flag should be acceptable to all of us. And that won′t be possible without a willingness to discuss and consider options to the sadly dated symbol that currently adorns our national institutions."

The flag can be changed by an Act of Federal Parliament. Although the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, a staunch supporter of the current design, introduced legislation in 1996 to make change possible only by referendum, the Senate has not yet dealt with the bill.

The other co-chairman of the Ausflag board, the investment banker Mr Nick Whitlam, said he believed Mr Howard could shift ground if he saw that the electorate wanted change.

Mr Whitlam, a son of the former Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, said those who supported the present flag on the grounds it is what Australian soldiers fought and died under, did not know their history. The blue ensign was only declared the official Australian flag in 1953.

Australian troops fought in Vietnam under it, but otherwise have gone into battle under a wide variety of flags, including the Union Jack, the red and blue ensigns and the United Nations flag. "Flags evolve," Mr Whitlam said. "There is no reason ours shouldn′t."