Flag waving

Editorial, The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 1996, p.16.

There is an element of gimmickry in the Prime Minister's announcement on Anzac Day that he intends to amend the Flags Act to ensure the Australian flag can not be changed without a referendum or plebiscite. The gimmickry is not so much that he chose such a solemn day on which to make this announcement. The flag is probably waved more proudly on Anzac Day than it is on Australia Day - despite the fact that it is not, as so often claimed, the flag under which Australian soldiers fought. Australian soldiers in the World Wars were more likely to have fought and died under the Union Jack or the Red Ensign, than under the Blue Ensign. It was not adopted as the national flag until 1953 - and then, incidentally, by an executive decision, not by referendum or plebiscite.

Nor is there anything wrong in wanting to ensure that "no-one will be able to change our national symbol without the nation's consent". That should be a pledge given by the Coalition and Labor. The gimmick is that any legislation to bind a future government in such a manner is likely to be unconstitutional and therefore likely to be struck down by the High Court. Mr Howard, it seems, is guilty of attempting to distract voters from the more serious issue of the economy – something the Coalition used to accuse Mr Keating of doing over the republic.

Mr Howard's announcement also leaves plenty of questions unanswered. Assuming he ignores the constitutional difficulties, will it be a referendum or a plebiscite? A referendum has a specific meaning at the national level. There is no justification for requiring a majority of voters in a majority of States to approve any change to the flag, as is the case in constitutional referenda. The "approval of the nation", surely, means an absolute majority of voters in a national plebiscite?

Nor does Mr Howard make it clear whether he proposes that any referendum or plebiscite on the flag be accompanied by a range of alternatives, such as was the case when the present national anthem was adopted. A two-stage referendum or plebiscite – where voters are first asked whether they want to change the flag and are later asked to chose between alternatives – would be cumbersome and costly. It severely handicaps those groups (which do not include the Labor Opposition) who want a new flag. Of course, that may be the real motive for Mr Howard's announcement.

© Ausflag 2017