Only a redesigned flag signals our independence

The Australian, 11 April 1995.

Tim Fischer's recent utterings regarding his preference for an elected Head of State if Australia were to become a republic have been interpreted as a simple wish to bring his party into the debate. But it could also be a clever tactic designed to preserve the monarchy for at least another generation.

Machiavelli s first law for political superiority was to divide and rule. Any astute politician would recognise that openly crusading for the monarchy is now a lost cause. Therefore, the secret to preserving the status quo while dominating the political ground is to divide the republicans. Already, they are beginning to divide over `reserve powers'.

Opinion polls are remarkably uniform in showing that about 80 per cent of those 55 per cent of Australians who want a republic also want to elect the Head of State. Fewer than 10 per cent of the electorate want to appoint the Head of State. They happen to include the Prime Minister many other MPs, lawyers and most members of the Republic Advisory Committee. Given the weight of opinion polling, the Fischer tactic could well be devastatingly effective.

That leaves us with the issue of the Australian flag. Paul Keating favours a new flag but he has allowed it to be held hostage to the republic. The entire Government has been forbidden from mentioning the f-word. But a new flag cannot wait. Four months prior to the turn of the century we will be hosting the 2000 Olympics. The entire world will be looking at Australia. For two weeks, images of our country will be beamed to billions of TV sets around the world.

When Canada hosted the Olympics in 1976 and the Commonwealth Games in 1994, the world did not know nor care whether Canada was a monarchy or a republic. What the world saw was a mature, sovereign independent nation. Should we enter the Olympic stadium in 2000 under a British colonial ensign, we will be announcing to the world that we haven't grown up. 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. Even Hong Kong will have dropped the Union Jack by 1997, and Tuvalu has recently announced Its intention to remove the Jack. By 2000 Australia and New Zealand will be the only two nations out of more than 50 members of the Commonwealth that still retain British colonial ensigns as their national flags.

By the 2000 Olympics, the loss of opportunity to launch our own identifiable symbol on to the world's stage will be immeasurable. We couldn't afford the International advertising we will be getting free of charge. Instead of displaying a symbol which could assist enormously in promoting Australian products and exports, we will be flaunting a symbol which to the rest of the world looks like a British branch office.

The Australian flag no longer serves its most important purpose - as a symbol of Australian unity. If there was any remaining doubt about that, Cathy Freeman dispelled it last year at the Commonwealth Games. She has since joined the Ausflag board and agrees with most Aborigines that reconciliation is unlikely while the Union Jack remains on the Australian Flag. To them, it is a symbol of genocide and oppression. The Union Jack on our flag was as appropriate at the turn of the century as it is inappropriate today.

Corporations spend millions on designing their logos. While this Government has spent a significant amount on examining the republic, not a brass razoo has been spent on the flag. Even though Keating is under no obligation to commit to one, if he guaranteed the Australian people that he would not change the flag without a plebiscite (which would require only a representative majority) or at least without the popular support of the people, few could argue against money being spent on developing designs. 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 the most important design issue to face our nation. It should not be rushed nor designed by politicians. The Australia Council should consider allocating funds for an expert independent design committee to develop options. Just imagine an Australian flag which in design terms parallels Ben Lexcen's yacht or the Sydney Opera House.

It follows that if we become a republic we will also proclaim our own flag. The reverse however is not the case. The republic is not a foregone conclusion and if it fails in the coming proposed referendum then like the GST it will disappear for a generation. The lessons of Canada should not be forgotten. Thirty years after hoisting her own flag Canada remains a constitutional monarchy.