The Australian Flag
Minute by the Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney

7 December 1995

To Council:

As Sydney prepares for the Olympic Games in 2000, and the Centenary of Federation in 2001, it should not only improve the physical nature of the City but it must express a view on issues of identity - important to Sydneysiders and to all Australians.

The Australian flag no longer serves its most important purpose - as a symbol of Australian unity. The Union Jack on our flag was as appropriate at the turn of the century as it is inappropriate today.

Australia's flag has changed many times. Our present flag dates from only 1953. It is usual for national flags to change from time to time as nations evolve. The latest version of the British flag dates from 1801, that of Canada 1965, France 1848, Israel 1948, Japan 1854, Spain 1936, USA 1960, South Africa 1994 and just recently, Tuvalu, the third remaining nation in the Commonwealth to still fly a 'defaced' British ensign, has decided to proclaim... their own flag.

Australia's first flag was the Union Flag (used by Captain Cook in 1770 and Captain Phillip in 1788), then came the Union Jack with the inclusion of the flag of St Patrick when Ireland joined the Union in 1801).

From the middle of the nineteenth century, a growing Australian nationalism brought forth many unofficial flags - all of them incorporating the constellation of the Southern Cross (Crux Australis), which was universally accepted as the emblem of the Great Southern Land.

In 1901 the new Federal Government organised a competition for a new flag, the first condition being that the design `should be based on the British ensigns, as the flags of the country added to its folds, signalling to the beholder that it is an Imperial union ensign of the British Empire'. Australians therefore never had a choice: the rules allowed only for a 'defaced' British ensign.

Two flag designs won the competition: one based on the British Red Ensign (for the use of every citizen), another based on the British Blue Ensign (for the Government and services). The King approved slightly altered designs in 1903, and the Union Jack was to remain senior flag to both designs. Then, in 1908 a seventh point was added to the Federation Star.

For many years there was considerable misunderstanding in Australia and in other countries with regard to the use of the Australian flags. During World War II, Prime Minister Menzies issued a directive that there should be no restriction on the flying of the `Commonwealth Blue Ensign', and Prime Minister Chifley gave his support to that view in 1947. In 1953, by means of a Commonwealth Act of Parliament - the Flag Act 1953 - the `British Blue Ensign' was proclaimed the national flag. Only since then has it had seniority over the Union Jack.

Persuasive arguments to change the flag.

  • It is not uniquely Australian. The Australian flag is virtually indistinguishable from the New Zealand flag. At a short distance, the two flags are almost identical. At international events, the New Zealand flag has been raised mistakenly for the Australian flag. When Mr Hawke visited Ottawa in 1985, the New Zealand flag was mistakenly raised in his honour. See attached print of flags.

  • There are over forty sovereign nations in the Commonwealth, some have remained monarchies, some have become republics. Only three, Australia, New Zealand, and Tuvalu (which has just announced it is changing to its own national flag) still retain British ensigns as their national flags. All the remainder have chosen flags which clearly identify their sovereignty, independence and nationhood.

  • It is an Imperial flag (by definition, see 1901 competition rules) which signifies our subordination to Britain.

Other Issues

Why it is so much more important to hoist a new flag before 1 January 2001 is based on one basic factor, the Olympic Games. Four months prior to the turn of the century, the entire world will be looking at Australia. For two weeks, images of our country will be beamed onto billions of television sets around the world.
Should we enter the Olympic stadium in 2000 under a British colonial ensign, we will appear to remain dependent on Great Britain. Our chance to be a leading nation in our region will be greatly diminished. Leading nations do not have flags which reflect subservience to other nations.

By the 2000 Olympics, the loss of opportunity to launch our own identifiable symbol onto the world's stage will be immeasurable. We couldn't afford the international advertising we will be getting free of charge. We should be displaying a symbol which could assist enormously in promoting Australian products and exports throughout the world.

In 1973 Queen Elizabeth II was proclaimed Queen of Australia. Since then Australians' allegiance has been to the Queen of Australia not the Queen of Great Britain.

The 1900 Australian constitution and Statute of Westminster (adopted by Australia in 1942) and the recent proclamation of The Australia Act, make it quite plain that the British Parliament has no control over the independent Commonwealth of Australia. The two systems of Government are completely separate. However, the current Australian flag implies that Australia is a colony, homeland, protectorate or dominion of Great Britain, like Hong Kong or the Falkland Islands.

In heraldry, the upper right canton (left-hand top corner) is the position of honour. The implication is that Britain still commands our loyalty more than does Australia. Australia now participates as an equal member of the Commonwealth of Nations, not as a colony, but as a sovereign, independent nation.

The removal of the Union Jack from our flag would in no way cut our links with Britain. Our language, place names, law, parliaments, monuments, institutions and traditions, as well as our history books and other literature, ensures that affection for and knowledge of our British heritage remains well ahead of all the other nations which comprise our very rich culture.

In 1965, Canada changed her flag from a British red ensign to the red and white maple leaf. Prime Minister Lester Pearson declared at the time `the crying need in Canada is for a patriotism that puts Canada ahead of its parts, with national symbols that encourage national unity and reflect Canada's status as an independent sovereign nation.'

The Canadian Maple Leaf has been an unqualified success in giving Canada her own national and international identity. It has engendered national pride and unity. Some argue that the removal of the Union Jack from our flag necessarily means that we will become a republic, we may and we may not; yet thirty years after the hoisting of the maple leaf, Canadians in a referendum chose to remain a monarchy.

Australians have not always fought under the present flag. Indeed the only war (undeclared) where that was definitively the case was the Vietnam War. The Union Jack was the only flag used on our side during the Boer war, the Union Jack was again predominant in the First World War (it being the senior flag until 1953). And there was confusion among the Union Jack, the 'defaced' Red Ensign and the 'defaced' Blue Ensign. The famous Changi Flag, which flew at the liberation of Singapore in 1945 was a Red Ensign. The United Nations flag was the flag we fought under in the Korean War.

The notion that people fight and die for flags is unreasonable. To promote or endorse such an idea would be to suggest that all those Canadians, New Guineans and South Africans who fought and died alongside Australians in bygone wars died in vain because their countries have subsequently changed their flags.

In 1967, Prime Minister Menzies wrote in his book 'Afternoon Light': "In the year of my birth - 1894 - Queen Victoria was on the throne of the United Kingdom and Ireland and the Dominions and Colonies beyond the Seas ... For us, the maps of the world were patterned with great areas of red, at a time when red was a respectable colour."

It appears that Menzies' arbitrary changing of the then popular red ensign to blue, without any consultation with the Australian people, was for political purposes, in the wake of the World's obsession with the "red" communist peril.

Support of the Australian people

A plebiscite was held in 1977, asking Australians to choose their National Anthem. God Save the Queen was overwhelmingly rejected in favour of our own anthem, Advance Australia Fair. On 19 April 1984, the Government proclaimed `Advance Australia Fair' as our National Anthem and also proclaimed green and gold as our National Colours.
There is no difference in changing from a colonial anthem to a national anthem than there is in changing from a colonial flag to a national flag.

The Canadian experience in moving from a colonial red ensign to the Maple Leaf flag in 1965, parallels our experience. The Canadian Consul, Mr D.J. Stimpson, described the events:

"Public discussion of the issue was extensive and often heated. Parliamentary debate lasted through six months, although it is likely that this would have been briefer had the question not been seized on by the Opposition in the hope, through it, of toppling a minority government. Popular opposition to a distinctive flag tended to centre on nostalgia and was led principally by members of the Royal Canadian Legion, the Canadian equivalent of the Returned Services League. Support reflected a strong and growing sense of national identity and concern for the political consequences of a symbol perceived increasingly to be both inappropriate and provocative.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the national mood during the flag debate was deceptive. The immediate, universal and (for Canadians) surprisingly emotional acceptance of the Maple Leaf flag following adoption shows clearly that the overwhelming majority of citizens wanted a distinctive symbol but that this desire remained largely inchoate until a design of strong appeal was presented to them. Until then, and while many less appealing designs sought acceptance, indifference or hostility to particular proposals tended to be interpreted as indifference or hostility to the concept itself. In the event, opposition to a distinctive flag collapsed entirely following proclamation of the Maple Leaf flag and no move subsequently has sought its replacement. It is likely that historians will view the Canadian flag debate as an inevitable stage in our national maturation and as an early step in a more fundamental re-definition of our national identity."

We must respect the emotional sentiments of members of organisations such as the RSL. But not all returned soldiers agree with the stated RSL position. (see attached article "Foreign flags made war heroes republicans" The Australian 30 August 1995).

Our primary objective now should be, with the popular support of the Australian people, the adoption of a truly Australian flag, a flag which clearly and unequivocally proclaims our identity to other nations, a flag which is internationally recognisable and not confusing to other nations, a flag which represents the diversity of the Australian nation.

Ansett Airlines recently removed the Australian flag from their logo. Their marketing director, Garry Kingshott, spoke of the market research which prompted this change: "Surprisingly they (the Asian market) did not associate the logo which was a stylised Australian Flag as Australian necessarily. There was quite a deal of confusion where an airline carrying this sort of livery might in fact come from. But importantly we wanted to be seen as representative of modern Australia, a progressive enterprise, young, trusting if you will, bursting on to the Asia market."

A survey conducted by AGB McNair and published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 January 1995 (see attached), found that for the first time, there are now more people in favour of changing the flag than there are opposed to it. 56% of young Australians were in favour of change as opposed to 44% of older people. As such, it can be reasonably predicted that support for a new flag is likely to increase even more by the turn of the century.

Conclusion

Even though the flag can be changed by a simple Act of Parliament, there should be no change of flag without a "plebiscite" (which would require only a representative majority) or at least without the popular support of the Australian people. The precedent is there. Australians were able to choose their National Anthem at a plebiscite in 1977. Australians have never been given a choice in their flag.
The design of the new flag is unequivocally the most important design issue to face our nation. We should think of an Australian flag which in design terms parallels Ben Lexen's yacht or the Sydney Opera House.

We have less than five years to the 2000 Olympics. There will be no greater opportunity for Australia to show the world that we are a mature, independent nation, than during this event when the world's eyes will be upon us. Five years is not a long time in which to perfect the new Australian flag design and persuade the majority of Australians to endorse it.

We must endeavour to create a paradigm shift so that our culture and thinking are moved from inward and backward looking, to outward and forward looking.

It is vital that organisations such as the Sydney City Council show leadership in this debate and recognise the enormous benefits which will flow to all Australians from having "Our Own Flag" in time for the 2000 Olympics.

I therefore RECOMMEND that the Council:

  1. Support and promote open and frank debate towards a new Australian flag

  2. Support and promote design alternatives for a new Australian flag.

(signed)
Councillor Frank Sartor
Lord Mayor

Note: This resolution was passed by Sydney City Council by four votes to three