Too Few Salute the Flag

The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 1997, p.14.

Editorial

Last July, a Herald-AGB McNair Poll found that 66 per cent of Australians were opposed to a change in the Australian flag and only 27 per cent supported a new flag. A Herald AGB-McNair Poll, published yesterday, found that public support for the Australian flag was now evenly divided - with 46 per cent of Australians opposed to a change in the flag and 46 per cent supporting a new design. What has caused this surprising turnaround?

The discrepancy appears to be explained by the fact that the questions asked in both polls differed slightly. The first simply asked: "Do you think the Australian flag should be changed". The second asked: "If a suitable design for a new Australian flag were found, would you be likely to support or oppose its change?" The greater willingness to consider a new flag "if a suitable design is found" suggests a fairly weak national attachment to the present flag. It hardly seems appropriate to refer to a flag which kindles so little passion as a national symbol. It is also difficult to believe that a similar question in the United States about the Stars and Stripes, or in Canada about its striking maple leaf design, would elicit such a poor response.

Ausflag, the organisation committed to establishing a new Australian flag, has begun an unofficial process of canvassing alternative designs. One possible new flag (which incorporates the existing red, white and blue colours and the Southern Cross but excludes the Union Jack) went on display yesterday outside the Sydney Town Hall. The co-chairman of Ausflag, Mr Nick Greiner, said this was not intended to be the last word on a new flag but just one example of how existing elements could be combined to provide a "unique and inspiring" flag.

The latest Herald AGB-McNair Poll also found, somewhat surprisingly, 66 per cent of respondents favoured the incorporation of elements of the Aboriginal flag in a new Australian flag. Although a clear majority - 75 per cent - are opposed to adopting the Aboriginal flag as the new Australian flag, a surprising 19 per cent support making it the new national standard. Mr Greiner is right, however, to caution against the appropriation of the Aboriginal flag, or elements of that flag, without the consent of the Aboriginal people. And is it consistent to argue for the removal of one element of the present flag (the Union Jack) because it lacks relevance for an increasing proportion of the Australian people and replace it with another element which has symbolic relevance for only a small proportion of Australians?

Ausflag should be congratulated for beginning the process of public debate about choosing a new flag which is truly representative of all Australians. But this debate is one that has to be sponsored by the Federal Government. The Government has already shown that the flag is one of its priorities by legislating that the present flag cannot be changed without a national plebiscite. This is as it should be, even though it should be noted that the present flag was adopted by prime ministerial fiat and by an act of Parliament, not by a vote of the people.

The Federal Government should now complete the task by initiating a competition to permit Australians to consider whether they want the present flag or whether they would prefer an alternative design. A national competition to select a winning design or short list of winning designs could be conducted. Voters could then have the opportunity in a plebiscite before the 2000 Olympics and the centenary of Federation to decide on a new flag or if they want to retain the existing flag.