Flag idea waives all logic

The Australian, 20 June 1996, p.13.

By Mike Steketee
Mike Steketee is The Australian's national affairs editor.

After today, all true Australians will be able to breathe more easily, knowing that our flag has been made safe from the depredations of politicians. At least, that is what the Howard Government would like you to believe. It is expected to introduce legislation today preventing any change to the Australian flag without a nationwide vote. Who could possibly object? Certainly not the Labor Party, which will support the legislation. Not the Democrats. Even the Greens will vote for it, subject to checking the fine detail.

So why legislate if everyone agrees and there is no threat to the flag? You would think there were plenty of real things for the Government to do, particularly so early in its term. The answer is that it is indulging in a bit of political populism. It will dress up the legislation, which fulfils an election promise, by arguing that our most important national symbol can be changed now merely by an amendment to the Flags Act.

However, not only are all parties represented in the Parliament already committed to a national vote on any new flag but they would be committing harakiri if they tried to do anything else. And even if they had suicidal tendencies, they would not get such legislation through the Senate.

Not only will the Government's Bill not achieve anything, according to legal experts it is unconstitutional because it attempts to bind future Parliaments. The Government's response is that a future Parliament can repeal the legislation or even change it to, say, put an extra point on the Federation star when the Northern Territory becomes a State. But that just emphasises the futility of this Bill.

If It really wanted to protect the flag, it would entrench it in the Constitution. The Minister for Administrative Services, David Jull, revealed earlier this month why the Government decided against this course: the referendum to change the Constitution might be defeated. He hastened to add that would not be because Australians did not value their flag. Instead, it would be "yet another sign that Australians are happy with the way in which the Constitution is framed". Sure.

Jull gave the game away a little further into the speech when he said that an attempt to entrench the flag in the Constitution "might be portrayed by some as an act of weakness, an admission that it has lost the respect of those it was designed to represent". This is the real point and it applies just as much to the Government's legislation as it would to a constitutional referendum: if the flag fully served its purpose as a symbol of national unity, there would be no question of the Government moving to protect it.

Is there any other country in the world where the flag has so little support? According to a Newspoll conducted in October 1994, 43 per cent of Australians believed the flag should be changed, against 53 per cent who opposed a change. In a survey commissioned last year by Ausflag, which is campaigning for a new flag, 50 per cent said they would support a change before the Sydney Olympics if a suitable new design were found, while 46 per cent said they would oppose it.

In the absence of an alternative design that captures the popular imagination, the argument about a new flag remains academic. That is another reason why the Howard Government's legislation is redundant even before it is introduced.