Fate of the flag separate issue

The Brisbane Courier Mail, 27 April 1996.


Prime Minister John Howard has made no secret of the fact that he believes the present Australian flag is inviolable. He had frequently criticised his predecessor, Paul Keating, for scrapping it as the personal prime ministerial symbol and he promised long before the election that it would be waved more proudly when he assumed office. He chose Anzac Day to announce that he would use legislation to ensure that the flag could not be changed without the approval of a majority of the Australian people. But the flag he wants to entrench, with the Union Jack in the upper quarter next to the staff and blue ground has only been Australia's flag since 1953 when Sir Robert Menzies had parliament approve the Flags Act.

Most Australians in World War II did not fight under an Australian flag at all, while most in the second fought under a red Australian ensign. Nevertheless, there is a widespread belief among Australian ex-servicemen and women and their relatives that it was the current Australian flag they fought under and for. While that belief remains there is no possibility of any popular vote for a different flag.

Mr Howard's choice of Anzac Day to announce his decision to protect the preeminence of the present flag demonstrates the kind of campaign he might engage in if there were any serious opposition to his proposal. And it would be successful. This does not mean his scheme has legal merit. A legislative amendment to the Flags Act to require a referendum could be overcome by an equally simple amendment deleting the requirement. Mr Howard could not doubly entrench his scheme (that is, prevent his referendum proposal being overturned by a simple majority vote of parliament) except by having a referendum. Under the Constitution the requirement for popular approval by referendum of any legislation can only be achieved if the Constitution itself is changed – by referendum.

It is significant that Mr Howard has recognised the question of the flag should be differentiated from that of a republic. Whether Australia has its own head of state is entirely a separate question from the design of the national flag. Mr Howard's policy is to facilitate discussion of the republic issue through a convention and referendum (though he remains a supporter of the status quo), but to head off public canvassing of the flag design.

He no doubt remembers the way in which the Fraser government resort to public opinion resulted in a change of the national anthem from God Save the Queen to Advance Australia Fair. But Mr Howard's move to protect the flag by properly isolating it from the head of state issue may well be to the advantage of the republican movement.