An erstwhile ensign

The Modern Times, June 1992.

"Keep your hands off our flag," the traditionalists demand with increasing vehemence as Paul Keating continues to promote the need for new national symbols. The trouble is that it is not our flag and never has been.

The Flag Act of 1953 gave the game away. It was passed to give statutory recognition to the present flag in preparation for the royal tour of that year. The schedule to the Act is clear about the nature and origins of the flag. 'The Australian National Flag', it proclaims, 'is the British Blue Ensign'. This makes all the talk about the flag being a symbol of our national experience sound rather silly. It also underlines major problems with the conservative case against change.

The conventional view is that the flag resulted from a competition in 1901 attracting over 30000 entries, which allowed the new nation a free choice of design and ultimately reflected the popular will. But the truth is quite different. The first condition of the competition was that the flag `be based on the British ensigns... signalling to the beholder that it is an Imperial union ensign of the British Empire'. Even after the winning design had been chosen it had to be submitted to the British government - and, more specifically, the Admiralty. (Approval, incidentally, was a year in coming.) In 1908 the Australian government was forced to seek British permission to add the seventh point to the federation star.

Australia's choice was not over which flag to adopt; it was more a matter of deciding which local symbols should `deface' the red and blue ensigns, the dominant background colours of the alternative flags. Even then there was no unequivocal decision in favour of the blue ensign. As Senator George Macleary explained when introducing the flag Act in 1953:

"During the first twenty years of federation... the Australian blue ensign was regarded as a flag which should be flown only by Commonwealth government departments and agencies whilst the Australian Red Ensign or the Union Jack was flown by Australian citizens. That practice is still obtaining in some places."

Australia's situation was not unique. In 1901 over forty colonial flags followed a similar pattern – either red or blue ensigns with a local symbol attached like a transfer to the bottom right hand quadrant. They had a strong family likeness because the colonies shared the same dependent relationship with the Mother Country, the supremacy of which was symbolised by the position of the Union Jack in the upper left hand corner in heraldic terms the dominant position. Colonial ensigns were not just for decoration. They had clear meaning – symbolising the political, legal and economic relations of dominance and subordination.

While this reality has been forgotten by present day defenders of the flag it was clearly understood by the politicians who debated the Flag Act in 1953. "Our flag", the member for Mallee, Winton Turnbull, explained, "symbolised the loyalty of Australia to the Empire and its unity with the British Commonwealth". His colleague Percy Joske was more lyrical. "In the most important part of the flag", he observed, "the part nearest the hoist, appears the glorious Union Jack, a flag that thrills the heart of every Englishman".

When they were first flown in 1901 the Australian ensigns were appropriate symbols; they fitted our reality. Australia had no independent standing in international relations and until the 1940s a majority of the population identified themselves as Britons. Even after the second world war most people favoured a united empire foreign policy rather than an independent one.

But time has moved on. Flags have changed in sympathy all over the world. Almost all the countries which once had colonial flags have replaced them, appreciating that they could not symbolise the ideals and aspirations of independence. There are now 47 ex-British colonies which have distinctive national flags, some of them of striking originality.

That leaves Australia and New Zealand, and Fiji for the time being as the only ex-colonies to retain the flags of the empire. Our embarrassment is compounded by the fact that the few remaining British colonies still fly blue ensigns. So as far as flags are concerned Australia lines up with the Virgin Islands, St Helena, Pitcairn, the Falklands and the British Antarctic Territory. It is strange company for an independent nation. The blue ensign is also used by the British Consular Service, by government departments and even by royal yacht clubs. The likeness between these assorted flags and the Australian one has been noted before. The point is that they don't just look alike. They are all variations of the blue ensign. The flag is the same; only the decoration is distinctive.

We can scarcely claim that people outside Australia don't understand our point of view. They understand only too well. Almost a third of the countries in the world had colonial flags of their own and decided to change them. They appreciated that the old ensigns were anachronistic and did not reflect new realities. It is a lesson yet to be learnt by people who argue that the meaning of the Union Jack in the corner of the flag has changed by some unexplained process from being a symbol of subordination to one reflecting our cultural heritage.

The politicians who spoke in favour of the Flag Act in 1953 grasped the truth. "It is", Winton Turnbull exclaimed, "the flag of a British people". Clearly that presents difficulties for those who are not British by birth or heritage and for those who have ceased to see themselves in that light. But the point needs to be further pursued. For Australians in the past being British meant to be white. They were deeply influenced by the ideas of racial superiority which underpinned the whole Imperial venture. Britishness was determined by racial characteristics not cultural ones. So in Australia during the first half of the twentieth century, the blue and red Ensigns were the flags of racial exclusion, immigration restriction, deportation and discrimination.

Change cannot come too soon. If we are not decisive New Zealand may beat us to the punch. We would then have the invidious distinction of being the only independent nation flying a colonial ensign of an erstwhile empire.