House of Representatives, Wednesday 11 December 1996
It is very interesting that we find it necessary in this parliament to debate a bill of this type. The fact is that the Flags Amendment Bill would never have been introduced if there had been absolute certainty amongst members of the parliament and the Australian public that there was no intention ever to change the Australian flag. It was only during the period of the last government that on a number of occasions, which began in 1984, it was necessary for members of the then opposition to constantly remind the parliament and the Australian people that we had a flag that was captive purely to an act of parliament and not to the constitution itself, a flag that was captive to the whims and the balance of numbers in this place and in the Senate.
So there were circumstances where uncertainty of the future of the Australian flag started to arise, and it was fostered, I would have to say, both by former Prime Minister Keating and by his predecessor, Bob Hawke. So there were hints, innuendos and some straight statements from time to time which aroused great concern amongst sections of the Australian community and amongst the majority of Australians that their flag, something they had grown up with, something they respected and honoured, was going to be changed at the whim of a parliament.
As I have said, from 1984 there were moves in this parliament and in the Senate - as recently as 1994 by Senator Parer, who brought in a private member′s bill in the Senate - to ensure that, firstly, the Australian people were conscious that the Australian flag could be changed by an act of parliament and, secondly, the sophistry of the Australian Labor Party was fully exposed. It seemed to us on this side of the House during that period when the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, went on foreign junkets or foreign travel that he wanted to raise and talk about nothing more significant than the Australian flag or the need for Australia to become a republic.
It was a diversion, as the honourable member says, to attract press attention in Australia, but it seemed a strange method of conducting our foreign relations for a Prime Minister to go overseas and then bag the symbols of our nation, the things that we have grown to cherish, the things that we value, to foreigners.
It was shameful, and nobody would understand that better than the Minister for Veterans′ Affairs (Mr Bruce Scott), who is at the table, a man who knows the hearts and minds of Australia′s veterans, those people who have given their lives and in many instances are suffering ill health from the conflict they participated in on our behalf. Those people know and understand the Australian flag, and that fact is appreciated by the minister and members on this side of the House, but it is not appreciated by the previous Prime Minister.
The previous Prime Minister, on meeting President Suharto, launched into a tirade about the insignificance of the Australian flag, the irrelevancy of the Australian constitution, the need to change the flag and the need to establish a republic. President Suharto, in my opinion, would have been most impressed with a leader who thought so little of his own constitution, his flag and his country′s symbols when the first thing that leader did when travelling overseas was to criticise and denigrate those very symbols!
If I were endeavouring to convince the previous Prime Minister - or anybody else for that matter - that he should take a certain course of action, I would seek to persuade him that, first of all, the things I stood for were of value and that he would appreciate sharing them with me. I would tell him that his lifestyle or his opportunities would be enhanced by sharing the same values and goals that I had.
But the previous Prime Minister would not have a bar of that. No! The statement he is claimed to have made is presented in the book of the Prime Minister before him, Bob Hawke. Keating is reported to have said that Australia is the backside of the earth.
Keating said that he would leave Australia, because of these characteristics that he described, if he were not made Prime Minister. He said that he must be given a go at leadership or he would buzz out of Australia. He could not stand the place any longer and he was not going to stay here.
Bob Hawke was a bit rough and a bit of a larrikin in his own way, but he was liked by Australians. They thought he was a knockabout Aussie and not a bad sort of fellow. He was not the sort of man who would come into this parliament and snooze. He would enliven the place. He would set it on end. I cannot imagine Bob Hawke, even today in his advancing years, going to sleep on any public occasion, because he with his wife would want to embellish and improve upon the environment where they were. But that is not the case with every member of the Labor Party. Members only have to look around them to know that Bob Hawke′s standards are not the standards of the House today.
Bob Hawke was thought of as something of a larrikin. He was liked by the Australian people and he had the heart of an Aussie. Whilst he endorsed to some extent the broad issues of a republic and the change of the flag, he never pushed the issue hard.
It was the following Prime Minister who made the difference in this place. Keating said that one of the great goals of the Australian Labor Party was to make these changes. I think that was most regrettable. It hurt many important Australians - people important to the strength of the nation. They were not leaders perhaps, but they were people who had worked hard, people whose family had suffered loss or people who had been wounded or maimed during the great conflicts. These are the people who felt the battering and the denigration that was aimed at them through the words of the previous Prime Minister.
Hence, the Flags Amendment Bill that we are debating today has become a necessity for the future of Australia. This issue has been raised three or four times from 1984 until last year, but with the change of government has come our commitment. When in opposition we said that we would, on coming to government, pass an act of parliament which would make it compulsory for the Australian government - unless they wished to be law-breakers and become illegal in their method of operation - to go to the Australian people with a referendum to decide the future of our flag.
I include that qualification, because a future government wanting to change the flag would have to be a law-breaker. It would be possible for a future government to say, `We′re going to ignore this act of parliament or we′re going to amend it, so we don′t have to go to a referendum and consult the people.′ That is certainly true, but they will have to break a law or change a law to do so.
I would like to see the Australian flag and what it stands for become part of the Australian constitution because, whilst the population of Australia changes and the attitudes of the people change, surely the values, the standards and the inheritance that we have make Australia different and unique, and those are the things we ought to be clinging to. Those are the values and standards that have made Australia the great nation that it is, and we must, if possible, stick to them.
I want to read briefly into the Hansard part of a letter I received from a fine gentleman, a fellow called Reg Sampson. Reg Sampson was the auditor for the Reserve Bank. He knows Canberra well. He is a fine, distinguished career banker, a very high level public servant. He wrote to me recently about the matters in this nation which he felt strongly about. I cannot find words that better describe the inheritance of the people of Reg′s generation. They are the people who look forward to this parliament and the current generation carrying on some of the standards they set. Reg begins his letter by saying:
One upsetting aspect of Keating′s performance regarding our flag is that it is borne out of hatred of anything British. Any change borne out of hatred is bad and I surmise this is his motivation because the arguments he advances for change are so empty and specious he couldn′t believe them himself.
Another aspect of course is his predisposition that we cannot have complete sovereignty, independence and a sense of nationhood until we are a republic and have a new flag. While he and his government spout about sovereignty they surrender ours in numerous ways to the U.N. and other international organisations.
What more do we need to add, because that is a fact? He continues:
When it comes to the question of unity, it was because of the sense of unity already there, that the Australian States federated. Had Keating read much of the diaries and letters of the men of the A.I.F. he would have learnt that they had an intense feeling of Australian nationalism and a pride in it. It is significant that their pride, which with most Australians today lies in the achievements of our sporting greats, was in themselves and their achievements fighting for their country as Australians. My father′s own Great War diaries and letters are bound with expressions that the AIF hoped to bring credit to Australia as a nation. On Gallipoli he wrote, "Thank God Australia breeds such heroes".
There is an Australian battler, writing from Gallipoli `Thank God Australia breeds such heroes′. Reg Sampson goes on:
But the feeling of nationhood and unity and pride in their country by Australians was there much earlier than in the Great War. It led to Federation, without the need for unity being created by having to fight a war of independence as happened in America.
In August 1900, before Australia was a Commonwealth, the Australian force at Elands River, during the Boer War, when surrounded by a greater force, and called upon by General De La Rey to surrender, sent the following reply. -
"If De La Rey wants our post, why does he not come and take it? We will be pleased to meet him and his men, and promise them a great reception at the end of a toasting fork, Australians never surrender! Australia forever!"
Those words were from the Boer War in 1900 – something Keating never understood, something Keating never acknowledged and something Keating could not, in any way, endorse. Reg continues:
The Australians succeeded in holding their position. It should be remembered that they were not an AUSTRALIAN force; But forces under different titles from various States. They were State′s military units.
And yet they thought as Australians. It continues:
Reverting to Keating′s statement, mentioned in my earlier letter, that Australians fought under the Union Flag in the Great War; I enclose two pieces of evidence of the use of the Australian Flag during that conflict. I would appreciate their return some time. On the notice menu for Anzac Commemoration Dinner in Paris in 1919 you will see the signatures of Billy Hughes then Prime Minister of Australia and Joseph Cook a former P.M. on the left top side. Also (very faint but clearer on the original) that of H.S Gullett, one time M.P. who served in the Light Horse and also wrote the history of the Sinai and Palestine campaigns.
There was one aspect of our heritage and seldom used now, but an excellent form of ombudsmanship, and that was the right to petition the sovereign or his or her representative. Many an injustice or wrong was put right by this device.
He encloses those photographs, records and the news bulletin, The Whispering Boomerang, with a photograph from 20 September, 1917 of Australian soldiers in the Great War holding aloft the Australian flag. Those things that Reg has spoken about to me, and through me to the parliament, are very significant for Australia′s future.
I want to conclude my remarks by referring to the flag and what it means for the future of this nation. If we look at the elements of the flag and the symbolism of the flag rather than the precise details of the flag, then we start to appreciate what an inheritance we have.
If we look at the Union Jack, we have to appreciate that there are only about 14 or 15 absolutely free democratic nations on earth. Australia is fortunate to be one of those. In the United Nations scale of ranking of freedoms, if you can devise such a process, Australia is the third freest nation on earth. There are a couple ahead of us, but we have a freedom that I believe is inherited by the parliamentary system that we have and the freedom of the courts from interference by the political process. So the right of a person to go before a court as an innocent individual is a very significant feature of Australian society.
In many courts of the world, people are confronted by an adversarial court system where they go before the court guilty and must prove themselves innocent. Our system is quite different to that, and it is a valuable freedom that we have. I believe that those two features of parliamentary democracy and the freedom of the courts stem from our British inheritance.
In addition, the flag carries the symbol of the Southern Cross, claimed by republicans to be the symbol of republicanism. But I reject that concept. The miners at Eureka were typical Aussies. They told the government to get out of the way and get off their backs. The Australian people told the opposition some years ago that they did not want a GST. I think the fervent nature of Australians in their disregard for authority and government is an endearing character that we inherited and it is something that we should be proud of. No government in Australia will get too big for its boots while we have Australians with an attitude of dismissiveness towards authority and those people who want to preen or to promote authority.
It is my view that the inheritance of the Southern Cross is that of a typical Australian symbol, one that says that we are not overawed by authority. It is a matter where people look to an egalitarian society where there is equality of opportunity and where people seek the best by their own attributes and attitudes.
Finally, the third symbol of the Australian flag is the federal or Commonwealth star which symbolises the states and territories of this nation. The symbolism of one star representing the whole nation is in fact a symbol of unity and the need for this nation to work together as a people if they wish to have achievements.
So, in the symbolism of our flag, if you are thinking of symbolism for the future of this nation, we would have to say that we need and must cling to those inherited values of freedom, the parliamentary process and the significance of our court system, because they very much underpin our very society. The individuality of Australians is a very important characteristic, as is the capacity for us as a nation not to be overawed by government or those in authority but to be able to stand up for our own rights as individuals and as is the need for us as a nation to be able to work together if we want to achieve things.
I think the symbolism of the flag has stood us in good stead in the past and it would be very difficult to replace it with another flag of similar significance. So it is with a great deal of pleasure that I support the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. I know that the bill will go through this parliament. I hope it will become an act of this parliament. I hope that future generations will value the contribution of members of this House as much as we can value the contributions of those who have gone before who have pointed out to us the way in which we need to revere and adhere to the principles and symbolisms that our flag stands for, because our flag does represent our nation.