The Senate, Thursday 5th March 1998
Debate resumed from 13 December 1996, on motion by Senator Ian Campbell: That this bill be now read a second time.
I want to make a very brief contribution to the debate on the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. I think the Senate will be relieved that the government has finally got its act together and brought the legislation before the Senate. It was introduced in June 1996 and passed through the House of Representatives later that year. It is a piece of legislation that has been in the ether for 12 months or more.
I think it is proper to say that this legislation is the culmination of work undertaken by the then opposition who, over a period of in excess of a decade, brought forward quite a number of private members′ bills with similar objectives to the legislation we have before us. Given that circumstance and if it is of such importance and priority to the government, I am surprised that it has taken so long to come before us. Nevertheless, we do have a capacity to deal with it now. I think senators will agree that it is an important piece of legislation.
This legislation amendments the Australian Flags Act 1953 to require a vote by the Australian electorate for the Australian national flag to be altered and to ensure that the existing flag is one of the options that must be put to the Australian people. I am not entirely convinced that this legislation is necessary. Like the national song referendum in 1977, any sensible government would put such an issue to the Australian people and give them a voice. That is important in relation to the choice of the national flag.
It has consistently been the position of the Labor Party that, whatever occurs, it is essential that we have a thorough debate about the alternatives and that public awareness and involvement be encouraged to the maximum extent. That will be very important in determining any possible alternative to the current flag. It is worth saying that the recent contribution by Ausflag has been useful in this debate about the flag. Frankly, I think it is very unlikely that any government would propose to change the Australian flag without the participation of the Australian people.
That is unlike the approach our forefathers took when the issue of the current flag was being dealt with. As many would acknowledge, for some in the community the issue in the debate over the flag has been the prominence of the Union Jack as the feature of our flag. This has been significantly debated in the context of an increasing number of Australians who are embracing an aspiration for an Australian republic. Naturally, people in the community do look at the issue of the appropriateness of the current design or a new design of flag. Some believe that a new flag could symbolise the Commonwealth of Australia becoming a republic.
I consider the move to a republic as the priority issue. I, along with many in the Labor Party, have argued pretty consistently that the issue of the Australian people determining whether or not we become a republic certainly ought to be dealt with before the issue of the flag. If it is the community′s view that that should also be debated then that should be done after referendums are held in relation to an Australian republic.
I recall that on Anzac Day 1996 the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) made a commitment to this particular legislation. He said at the time:
The new Federal Government is to take action, as promised, to protect our great national symbol, the Australian Flag. Legislation will be introduced early in the life of the new Parliament... to ensure that the Australian Flag cannot be changed without the approval of all of the Australian people voting at a referendum or plebiscite.
This will mean that no politician, no political party and no special interest group will be able to tamper with the design of our flag.
I have indicated that it would be a very courageous government and a very courageous political party that would suggest that the Australian flag be changed in any way without full public debate, participation, consultation and a vote of the Australian people.
It is interesting to note that the rules that governed the competition for the design of the current flag in 1901 stated:
The Flag should be based on the British ensign, as the flags of the countries added to its fold, signalling to the beholder that it is an imperial ensign of the British Empire.
When the final design was chosen, interestingly enough, it had to be to submitted to the British government and - I remind the Senate - the British admiralty for approval.
I am certain that all senators in this chamber would believe that our flag is a very important, very significant - if not the most significant - symbol of our nation and our history as a nation. The arguments are presented to us that the Union Jack symbolises the history of the union of Scotland, England and Ireland. I would also point out that at no time has the design of the great flag of Great Britain been taken to its people. Its new design and ours were adopted without a referendum or plebiscite.
I believe the principle of the Australian people determining these issues is one of fundamental importance. I have indicated that the opposition does question the necessity for the legislation. In these circumstances and because I have great faith in the good sense of the Australian people on these issues - in fact, I have enough faith in Australian governments and politicians to believe that no-one would propose a course of action without that level of consultation and participation and that decision being firmly in the hands of the Australian people.
I have adequate faith in politicians and government to believe that this course of action would be an absolute requirement in any case. With those few words - assuring the Senate that I do have my heart in this contribution - I indicate that the opposition will be supporting the legislation.