Sun Herald, 30 January 2011.
© Sun Herald
Fewer salute when we try running up a new flag
The political will to change our colours is not there, writes Tom Hyland.
YOU MIGHT have missed it, but last
week we entered a turning point in
our national history. The historical
moment, according to advocates of
a new Australian flag, was a statement
by 12 former Australians of the
year calling for a new emblem to
define the nation′s identity.
It was a major breakthrough, said
Harold Scruby, the founder of
Ausflag, the change-the-flag lobby
group which drafted the statement.
Ausflag chairman Robert Webster
declared: "This is a turning point in
the flag debate and in our history."
Launched on Australia Day, the
statement was lost in a flurry of
images of Australians waving and
wearing the "old" flag, while Julia
Gillard and Tony Abbott elbowed
each other aside to declare their love
and respect for the current ensign. If
this was a turning point, it took us to
a place we have been before.
Last year the figurehead was TV
personality Ray Martin, who
declared it was time we "grew up"
and abandoned an emblem dominated
by the British Union Jack.
This year it was 2010 Australian of
the Year Patrick McGorry who similarly
declared it was time Australians
grew up. "Right now, it′s a bit like a
slowly maturing generation Y
adolescent, a 27-year- old who just
won′t leave home," Professor
This was dejavu to observers of
the national identity debate such as
historian James Curran at the University
of Sydney. "Every year," he
said, "Ausflag claims an unprecedented
development in the flag
debate, and every year someone
new has a crack at it."
And every year, the flagship of th(
change-the-flag campaign ran
aground "because there is no ready
made alternative model that either
has conceptual inspiration or, perhaps
more importantly, popular
legitimacy", Dr Curran said.
In other words, a lot of people like
the current flag, and a lot dislike the
alternatives that proponents of
change periodically unfurl.
Ralph Kelly keeps an even closer
eye on the flag debate. He′s a
vexillolo gist, he studies
flags, and is spoke,
man for the Flag
Society of Australia.
He is also a membe of
Ausflag, but has no
illusions about the
task confronting supporters
of change. He said the
factors usually essential to a flag
change were absent or in short supply
in Australia. Flags usually
change or emerge when a new country
is formed. The latest flag charted
by vexillolo Gists was Southern
Sudan′s, following this month′s vote
Other changes were brought about
by war or revolution, with Iraq and
Afghanistan recent examples. Then
there was constitutional change,
most recently in Burma where the
regime imposed a new flag last October
ahead of not-so-democratic
elections the following month.
In keeping with the junta′s
reputation for wackiness
(astrologers were consulted
when the capital was relocated in
2005), the regime ordered that the
old flags were to be taken down
by someone born on
a Tuesday and the new one raised by
someone born on a Wednesday.
In July last year, Malawi changed
its flag following a controversial
campaign by President Bingu wa
Mutharika. The new flag replaced a
rising sun with a fully risen one, to
symbolise what the President
argued was the progress made since
If the Malawi case was driven by a
politician determined to make a
strong statement about national
identity, so was Canada′s flag change
in 1965 - an example often used by
Australia′s flag advocates.
"Political vision is what
drove the change in
Canada," said Mr Kelly. "It
was seen as part of the
nation growing up, part of a
political vision of a nation
looking forward as a united
country, joining people with
French and British backgrounds.
you had the political will, the ′vision
thing′. That′s missing here, and
that′s what Ausflag faces. There are
no votes in it, and a lot against it."
One problem, Mr Kelly said, was
the abundance of alternative
designs, put forward by Ausflag and
others. None satisfy everyone, and
the multiple designs make it hard
for supporters of change to
coalesce. As multiple alternative
designs emerge, opinion polls show
growing support for the current flag,
A Morgan poll in April last year
put support for retaining the existing
flag at 69 per cent, up 16 per cent
since February 1998. Only 24 per
cent (down 17 per cent) wanted the
Union Jack removed.
One problem with alternatives
was that they lack symbolism with
"a deep rooted sense of the people"
and therefore lack popular legitimacy,
Dr Curran said.
He would like to see the flag
change. Like Paul Keating, he
believed the current one was an
ambiguous representation of Australia.
But he noted a renewed sense
of Australian patriotism which was
closely attached to the flag. "It′s
connected to Anzac and to people
who feel they′ve been left out by the
chill winds of multiculturalism."