Australia must fly the flag of the future

The Melbourne Age, 6 May 1992.

What a powerfully timid nation we form. One of the remarkable – but predictable – aspects of the argument that has developed following the Prime Minister's suggestion that we change the flag has been how hard so many people have tried to kill the debate.

On both sides, it is said that there are many more important things to debate. Why rock the boat now? Last week, a very talented political journalist said on ABC television that Mr Keating would look "silly" if his push for change founders. The Prime Minister was also criticised, even by his own idiosyncratic backbencher Graeme Campbell, for raising the issue outside Australia. So you are not judged just by what you say, or how you say it, but where you say it. Cringe on!

This reluctance to stir the possum is truly one of the keys to the Australian mind, it seems to me. It keeps us safe, secure. It binds our society . But if we are not careful it could destroy our prosperity and make us a beggar nation. There have been encouraging signs from our politicians in the past year. The Opposition leader, Dr Hewson, stepped in first by arguing for the goods and services tax. So it's unpopular. So what? Rightly or wrongly, he clearly believes that the tax and the attendant baggage of Fightback are what Australia needs. He wants Australians to talk about it, to be won over by his argument. Cynics say he is being foolhardy. But what is folly to the cynic is bravery to the democrat.

Sure, the broad argument about Fightback falls prey frequently to the ridiculous hyperbole and sophistry that is part of day-to-day politics, but that does not mask the enormous contribution to public life that Dr Hewson has made by nailing his colours to the Fightback mast. Similarly, Mr Keating - by getting Australians to talk about their nation's place in the world, and how it presents itself to other countries – is doing what leaders are employed to do.

Politically, it's a risk. But is anything ever achieved without risk? I am yet to see it. It could also be that the flag debate is not separate from the nation's economic problems. Those who argue against having a flag debate argue for the status quo. The message is that our national symbol is fine just the way it is. But doesn't Australia need to change? Doesn't it need to change the way it looks at itself? To become more productive? To become more adaptable?

I'm not suggesting here that Australians ever have thought about the flag when they are toiling away at work, nor that they ever will. But I have to tell you that whenever I look at that flag, I don't see an independent nation. I see a nation that still looks back at a white past in which it was protected and developed by the British Empire. I see the symbol of the Antipodes growing out of the symbol of the colonial creator.

Past, present and future: national symbols exist to reflect all these. As far as our past is concerned, one of the most heartening developments in the past few years has been what appears to be an increasing willingness among many young Australians to understand the sacrifices made in war by previous generations. At last, young people know what happened during the Coral Sea battle. Young Australians march in the Anzac Day parades, replacing the vanishing numbers of ex-servicemen. Young Australian travellers now also make their way to Gallipoli to pay homage. There is a reverence for the war dead within the Australian community that paradoxically grows as we move farther away from our wars.

The present? Confusion, confusion. Why can't things be the way they were, prosperous and harmonious, every body working, governments doing the right thing? The sad truth is that unless we decide to keep changing our nation, moving it away from the way it worked and looked in those golden times, we will stay this way. The world has already decided we can never go back. The flag debate is part of that process of assessing who and what we are.

The future? That's the part the people who want the flag to stay as it is don't seem to be thinking about. Surely a flag is there to take us into tomorrow, to tell us what is and what will be. It is foolish to deny or denigrate our British heritage. A lot of what is good in Australia – our democratic system, our laws, our tolerance – come directly from the British men and women who populated this land after invading it. But it has not all been gravy.

Australia was set up as a dumping ground for undesirables, as a mine, as a farm, as a financial customer, as a nuclear testing ground, as a place that could provide troops. Now, Britain is part of Europe and we share with it a language, membership of the Commonwealth and a monarch. Australians who ignore Ian Botham telling a reporter in Melbourne recently, "I respect my country's heritage. Unlike you, we've got one", or the feature writer in London's 'Sunday Times' who wrote a couple of months ago that the Australian accent does not suggest intelligence, ignore some of the signals the British are sending us.

As for those Australians who have fought for us, or lost loved ones in war, I cannot know what war is like. I respect their feelings about the flag. But the argument that Australians died for the flag is certainly a new one on me. I had always thought that one of the things they died for was this nation's freedom to debate issues like our flag.