A New Flag for a New Era?

Brendan Jones has had a lifelong interest in flags in general and the question of a new flag for Australia in particular. He was instrumental in the development of this Ausflag World Wide Web site and has his own New Australian Flags site in which he shows his proposed flag designs.

Ever since the Australian national flag was first raised in Melbourne on 3 September 1901 there has been debate about the suitability of the design. The Australian flag wasn't received with universal warmth when it was first hoisted, and it sometimes doesn't today, although for very different reasons.

Australia in 1901 largely saw itself as a part of Britain that happened to be in the southern hemisphere. It was almost a fait accompli that the winning national flag design chosen in 1901 would be a British Ensign with a badge or device added (defacement) - the usual design for the flag of a British colony as prescribed by the Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865.

The flags of all Australian colonies-cum-states were defaced British Ensigns, as were previous unofficial Australian flags, including the flag used to promote the Federation conventions. The Melbourne Herald's 1900 flag competition produced an ensign-like flag, as did the eventual 1901 joint Review of Reviews/Federal Government competition for a `Federal Flag'.

The entry rules to both competitions stipulated that two designs be submitted – "one for the merchant service and one for naval or official use". The call for entries to the private competition had also stated that a flag which omitted the Union Jack and Southern Cross "might have a small chance of success: yet it seems unwise to fetter the competition with any such absolute limitation."

Whilst the competition rules allowed entries of any fanciful design, the nature of the judging and the suggestions surrounding the private competition (to which four of the five winning entries were sent) made it highly likely that only a design based on the British red and blue ensigns would be chosen. In effect, the competition was really only for an Australian badge to appear on the red and blue British colonial ensigns.

However, in a sense this fact is of little import, as Australians generally showed intense loyalty to Britain and few would have considered `offending' their `home' nation by excluding their flag, especially since the flags of the six colonies were also ensign-based. Loyalty to the Union Jack was an honest expression of the spirit of the people at the time.

However, when the Australian flag was first raised, there were many Letters to the Editor of various Australian newspapers critical of it. However, mostly it was argument about the aesthetics of the design in the three quarters of the flag not occupied by the Union Jack - such as complaints about the number and size of the stars, or expressions of preference for the `stars-and-bars' winner of the Melbourne Herald's earlier competition. Very few people openly criticised the inclusion of the flag of Australia's colonial master in the design.

Enthusiasm for the Australian flag was rarely evident until World War I, whereupon it became much more prominent, but often the Australian flag was used interchangeably with the Union Jack. Australia was a loyal and committed part of the British Empire and to many people both flags had the same meaning.

The national sentiment was little different during World War II, and even in the 1950s Australians often flew the Union Jack in preference to, or in a superior position (vexillologically) to, the Australian flag. During this early postwar period some commentators bemoaned the apparent lack of enthusiasm in Australians for flying their national flag.

Somewhat ironically it took an Act of Parliament by Sir Robert Menzies' Government in 1953 to begin to correct this situation - the Australian Flag was given legal status for the first time as the national flag, though continued use of the Union Jack was specifically authorised.

Even as late as the 1960s, some people still felt uneasy about the Australian flag being accorded of a status higher than that of the Union Jack. Arthur Smout in The Flag Book (Penpress, Brisbane, 1968) comments:

"Many Australians probably fly the Union Jack out of a mistaken sense of loyalty to Great Britain, but if they fly the Union Jack in preference to, or instead of, their own Australian National Flag, are they not being disloyal to their own nation, Australia?

"For those (mostly of the older generation) who disagree, let it be pointed out that in flying the Australian flag they still pay tribute to Britain because the Union Jack has an important place in the design of the Australian National Flag."

Essentially the author was saying that British loyalists can still express that loyalty through the Australian flag because the Union Jack occupies the place of highest honour in the Australian flag – higher than that of any Australian symbolism.

The practice of flying the Union Jack slowly died away after the passing of the Flags Act, but it wasn't really extinguished until the 1960s. This change in mood, coupled with Canada adopting a new flag in 1965, seems to have been the turning point that ushered in a new phase of the Australian flag debate – questioning of the suitability of the Union Jack as a symbol of Australia.

Canada's flag debate was a relatively short-lived one. Canada's former flag was a British Red Ensign defaced with the Dominion's badge, and when Parliament began to seriously debate its suitability as Canada's national flag in May 1964, public debate became intense. However, after Parliament adopted the maple leaf design as Canada's new national flag nine months later, the change in national mood was remarkable. Opposition to a new flag, even by returned servicemen, disappeared virtually overnight as the nation emotionally embraced the new design.

The Canadian flag change inspired a few unofficial design competitions for a new Australian flag. One of the earliest jack-less alternatives was published in the Australasian Post on 8 October 1968 – a design almost the same as the current flag save for the absence of the Union Jack, a tilted Southern Cross, and a more prominent Federation Star.

However, the nation was not quite ready to embrace such a change. Loyalty to Britain, although fading, was still strong. Certainly no alternative flag designs captured the public imagination.

Debate over the national flag waxed and waned over subsequent years, without any particular enthusiasm for a new flag ever developing amongst the public, but as the debate now had a focus on the question of the presence of the Union Jack, it was a debate that could only grow rather than fade.

A new stage in the flag debate arrived with the formation of Ausflag in 1981, the first organised body in Australia to commit itself to seeing Australia eventually adopt a new flag (sans Jack). Harold Scruby, the founder of Ausflag, and other committed Australians built up the organisation through private donations to the point where Ausflag could run large public flag design competitions, run press and television advertisements, and promote debate about our national flag.

Ausflag's first major attempt to garner widespread support for a new flag came in 1985, in the lead up to Australia's bicentenary year. In 1988 Australia celebrated 200 years of European settlement, and Ausflag saw it as an opportunity to harness a mood for introspection about what it meant to be Australian. Also, many Australians of indigenous ancestry saw 1988 as a celebration of an invasion and genocide, thus the issue of what the Union Jack symbolised to Australia's original inhabitants also began to be a substantive issue.

The winning design in Ausflag's 1986 competition, however, failed to create the hoped-for spark. Subsequent major attempts to promote alternative designs in 1991 and 1993 have not as yet borne fruit.

However it is interesting that in the past 15 years, new flags for Australian territories (Northern Territory, Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and the Australian Capital Territory) have come into existence, and the Union Jack was not included in any of them.

It would seem that in the absence of an incumbent design, Australians do not have a strong yearning for the Union Jack as a symbol of Australia – that honour seems to belong to the Southern Cross. In fact in an Ausflag survey of what symbols Australians believe should be on any new flag, the Southern Cross was a clear winner on 41%. The Union Jack rated a poor 17%.

In view of this it would almost be essential that a new flag would have to include the Southern Cross - a comparable situation to the affection the public had for the Union Jack in 1901. The Southern Cross has probably become the symbol of Australia.

Some argue that this is inappropriate since the Southern Cross can be seen everywhere in the southern hemisphere and is thus hardly a unique symbol. However, maple leaves aren't unique to Canada, and that hasn't prevented Canada using it as a successful symbol of their nation.

Australia was the first country to use the Southern Cross on a flag (the Anti-Transportation League flag of 1851) and it is shown on our flag in a unique way, with all five stars of the Crucis constellation shown, and with the four large stars having 7 points each to symbolise the Australian Federation. The four other countries that use the Southern Cross on their flags (New Zealand, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Western Samoa) don't use our Southern Cross.

Given the Southern Cross as a starting point, the view today seems to be that by adding colours and/or symbols that are more definitively Australian to replace the Union Jack, we could arrive at a truly Australian flag.

It can be argued that if we adopt a more indigenous (i.e. Australian derived) flag design, there's much less of a case for ever changing it again at any time in the future. The lesson is that in Canada today you would find very few people that would still object to the flag change made in 1965, and certainly little if any debate about whether it should be changed again.

Of course we need to respect the fact that many people have a genuine affection for the current flag. Polls suggest a majority of Australians wish to retain it. Polls also suggest over a third of Australians wish to change it.

Is there in Australia an inchoate desire to adopt a truly Australian flag which the right design might unleash? The Australian territory flags perhaps indicate this might be the case – but to change the incumbent national flag is a somewhat different matter.

Designing a flag to represent a nation is an extraordinarily difficult brief. The inspiration that has led to other national flags is an intangible - a product of emotions and times that are usually not repeatable. Maybe one day Australia will experience events and emotions that lead to a new national flag. The design may already be with us. But one thing is for sure – a new national flag will fly over this nation only when the Australian people in their hearts desire it to be.

The assistance provided by Tony Burton and Ralph Kelly in preparing this article is appreciated.