Reply to Ausflag's Letter to the Prime Minister

The Hon. David Jull MP
Minister for Administrative Services
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
Mr Harold Scruby
Executive Director
Ausflag Limited
PO Box 500
NEUTRAL BAY NSW 2089

Dear Mr Scruby,

Thank you for your letter of 28 March 1996 to the Prime Minister concerning the Australian National Flag. Your letter has been forwarded to me for reply in view of my responsibility for Australia's national symbols.

The Coalition Government is strongly committed to the Australian National Flag. It was this commitment which, during the election, led us to promise to amend the Flags Act 1953 to guarantee that all Australians would be consulted before any changes to the Australian National Flag were made. Clearly the present legislative arrangement whereby the national flag can be changed by an Act of Parliament, without the views of the Australian people being taken into account, is unacceptable.

To make good this election promise, the Government has opted for legislation rather than a constitutional amendment. For an amendment to the Constitution to be successful, it requires an overall national majority of voters and the approval of a majority of voters in a majority of States. This sort of 'double majority' and State by State preference has special significance in respect of the Constitution, where a change may alter the balance of powers between the Commonwealth and the States, but this is not necessarily relevant to the choice of a national flag, which should be made by the Australian electorate collectively.

I introduced legislation into the House of Representatives on 26 June 1996 to amend the Flags Act 1953 to protect the flag from arbitrary change. The Flags Amendment Bill 1996 requires that any change to the Australian National Flag must be approved by the Australian electorate at a national vote and that the existing National Flag will always be amongst the choices offered to the people. I enclose a copy of the Bill for your information.

The Bill leaves the detail of the method of voting in a national vote to Parliament. Until the occasion for a national vote arises, the number of flags which may be submitted to the electorate cannot be known. If in addition to the National Flag, which must be one of the choices in a national vote, two or more flags are submitted as alternatives to the electorate, a decision on the voting method to be employed will need to be made. As you rightly point out, the only precedent to date is the vote on a national song held in May 1977 when the preferential system was adopted to count the votes for the four songs offered to the electorate. As you will see in section 3 of the Bill, the preferential system of voting may be adopted for a vote on choosing a national flag.

With regard to eligibility requirements for electors, the Government believes that the whole of the Australian electorate should be entitled to vote on the National Flag on the same basis that they are entitled to vote in general elections and on constitutional issues. The Commonwealth and all state governments agreed in 1981 that Australian citizenship should form the basis of being able to enrol and vote at Commonwealth and state elections. It was felt however, that it would be unfair to disenfranchise residents who were "British subjects" who already enjoyed the franchise. Section 93(1) of the Electoral Act allows those non-Australian citizens who were on the Commonwealth electoral roll on or before 25 January 1984 to retain the franchise.

In your letter you also raise the issue of how change to the Commonwealth Star can be accommodated in legislation requiring a national vote. The Flags Amendment Bill 1996 makes no special provision to exempt changes to the Star from the requirement for a national vote. It is by no means certain that the design of the Commonwealth Star should change if a new state is established or admitted to the Commonwealth. The Star has been a seven-pointed one since 1908. It has become a well recognised heraldic symbol in its own right and is found for example in the Commonwealth Coat of Arms and in many medal designs in the Australian honours system. If a new state is admitted to the Commonwealth and it is considered appropriate that the Star should be changed to reflect this, then the electorate will be consulted.

Finally, in response to your request for representation at the proposed People's Constitutional Convention, I can advise you that the Government is currently considering proposals to give Australians an opportunity to have their say about the Constitution and their system of government. The Government will announce details of these proposals as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely

(signed)

22 August 1996