Unfurling a new image

The Melbourne Age, 3 May 1996

By Harold Scruby
Harold Scruby is executive director of Ausflag Limited.

Australia may have come of age but our flag has not. Harold Scruby writes on why it must be changed now.

The Australian flag no longer serves its primary purpose - as a symbol of Australian unity. The Union Jack on our flag was as appropriate at the turn of the century as it is inappropriate today. The present flag has served its purpose, but is now divisive and demonstrably colonial.

A recent AGB McNair poll found that 50 per cent of Australians favoured a new flag without the Union lack, with 46 per cent against. With the possible exception of New Zealand, whose flag is all too frequently mistaken for our own, it is doubtful that there is another democratic nation in the world where there exists such widespread dissatisfaction with the national standard. Excluding our trans-Tasman neighbour, Australia is the only remaining member of the 53 Commonwealth nations to have retained a colonial-period British ensign.

Internationally, there is proof that our flag is a liability and actually works against us. Britain is now a vigorous competitor of ours and widely uses the Union lack as its prime marketing symbol. Because of the British "mad-cow" dilemma, no Australian beef producer would even contemplate placing the Australian flag anywhere near their products if they wish to penetrate world markets.

Removal of the Union Jack from our flag would in no way cut our links with Britain or our membership of the Commonwealth of Nations. Our language, place names, law, parliaments, monuments, institutions and traditions, as well as our history books and literature, ensure that affection for and knowledge of our British heritage remains well ahead of other nations that comprise our rich culture.

The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, recently announced that he will legislate to protect the flag, by means of a referendum or plebiscite. Great flags don't need protection. The Australian flag should be able to fly on its own without the need for a life-support system. Such legislation is unprecedented in the western world and the Commonwealth. Unlike the Australian flag, the Union Jack does not even have an act of Parliament protecting it.

If Mr Howard is genuinely concerned about the protection of our national symbols, and this is not a cynical political ruse, why has he not included the national anthem and the coat of arms?

Australians have rarely fought under the present flag. Indeed the only war (undeclared) where that was definitively the case was the Vietnam War. The Union Jack was the only flag used on our side during the Boer War. It was again predominant in World War I (being the senior Australian flag until 1953). And in World War II, there was confusion among the Union Jack, the red ensign and the blue ensign.

The famous Changi flag, which flew at the liberation of Singapore in 1945, was a red ensign. The United Nations flag was the flag we fought under in the Korean War. The notion that people fight and die for flags is preposterous. To promote or endorse such an idea would be to suggest that all those Canadians, New Guineans and South Africans who fought and died alongside Australians in bygone wars, died in vain because their countries have subsequently changed their flags. Similarly, both the naval and air force ensigns were changed after World War II.

Flags change as nations change. The Union Jack has changed (without a referendum). The Australian flag has changed five times since 1788. These changes have occurred without any plebiscites or referendums. The current blue ensign was not adopted until 1953 by executive decision, not by referendum or plebiscite.

Since 1984, the coalition has tried 11 times to introduce the Senate initiated Flags Amendment Bill. Initially requiring the approval of a majority of voters and a majority of states, this was changed in 1988 to a simple majority of voters. Experts in constitutional law agree that such legislation guarantees nothing. While it may be enacted, it can both be repealed by a future government and, if challenged, be overturned by the High Court.

Ausflag has always supported and widely promoted a plebiscite based on the national anthem precedent set by the Fraser-Howard Government in 1977. Then, Australians were given the choice of several tunes including God Save the Queen and Advance Australia Fair. There is absolutely no difference between changing a nation's flag or a nation's anthem. Therefore "approval by the people" can be guaranteed by following the 1977 precedent. This will also avoid a costly two-stage poll. The Australian Democrats have agreed in writing to oppose a referendum and support a plebiscite, so the former option is unlikely.

Paradoxically, the proposed legislation may also place unnecessary impediments on future governments. If, for example, the Northern Territory were to become a state and there was a need to place an extra point on the Federation Star, a costly and unnecessary referendum or plebiscite would be required.

Currently, even if his legislation is proclaimed, Mr Howard cannot guarantee the Australian people the final say. Under an anachronistic and discriminatory section of the Electoral Act, there are estimated to be up to a million "British subjects" who vote in our elections. It is conceivable that up to 10 per cent of the voters are foreigners, many of whom have a vested interest in retaining the Union Jack on our flag.

Conversely, the High Court has ruled that only Australian citizens can sit in the Federal Parliament. In a bizarre twist, Mr Howard can only guarantee that the Australian people will have the final say on the flag, if he either removes non Australians from the rolls or he leaves the decision to the Parliament. Not one foreigner should have a vote determining the future of our flag.

Can Mr Howard look forward and truly discover if there is another flag that could unite all of us? If so, he will support and promote open and vigorous debate on the subject, devote sufficient funds for professional research and design and appoint a multi-party parliamentary committee (following Canada's example), so that the Australian people can have the best possible choice or choices on which to vote at a plebiscite.

We have just over four years to the 2000 Olympics. Every day, for two weeks, our flag will be on billions of TV sets throughout the world. There will be no greater opportunity for Australia to show the world that we are a grown-up, sovereign, independent nation than during this event. However we may see ourselves, should we enter the Olympic stadium in 2000 under the current flag the world will see us as some sort of inferior British branch office. Our chance of becoming a leading nation in our region will be greatly diminished. Leading nations do not fly flags that symbolise subordination to other nations.