House of Representatives, Thursday 12 December 1996
May I thank everyone who has participated in the debate on the Flags Amendment Bill 1996. The fact that we had such an exceptionally large number of members contribute to this debate really demonstrates that this chamber has a respect for the flag and, indeed, indicates the respect of the Australian community as a whole for the Australian national flag.
I am very pleased that we are facing this debate in a bipartisan way because the Flags Act, when it was passed in 1953, also received bipartisan support. Similar support for this bill will demonstrate to the people of Australia the principle that we, their elected representatives, have no intention of usurping their most important national symbol, their flag, the flag of our nation. The Australian national flag should not be changed without a vote of the electorate.
If I can turn to a point that was raised in the debate by a number of members, particularly by the member for Reid (Mr Laurie Ferguson) in his speech, where the constitutional validity of this legislation was contested. Some members opposite have suggested that the bill may lack validity because it attempts to construct a different legislative power to section 1 of the constitution. That section, of course, vests legislative power in the federal parliament consisting of the Queen, the Senate and the House of Representatives and they thought this might have happened by the inclusion of the Australian people in the above legislature.
Can I assure members that the government is satisfied that the bill as drafted is constitutionally valid. The member for Reid also - I thought quite mischievously - sought to raise doubts as to whether, if a vote for a new flag does occur, there would be any significance in the way the votes are counted. The explanatory memorandum and the bill are quite clear, and I restate it for the sake of clarity: a new flag can be adopted if and only if a majority of all electors voting nationally vote for a new flag. The government′s intention is that any vote on whether to adopt a new flag shall be on the basis of a national vote counted on a national basis. It does not matter how the majority view stacks up in the various states and the territories. The government believes that the choice of a national flag is not one which affects the balance of power between the Commonwealth and the states, as may occur with a change to the constitution. Rather, it goes to the issue of how we express our national identity, which is a decision for the will of the Australian people acting as a whole.
The member for Reid and the member for Prospect (Mrs Crosio) drew attention to the fact that the bill makes no provision for variations to the flag should the Northern Territory become a state. The Commonwealth star has consisted of seven points since 1908 - one point for each of the states and the seventh point to represent all of Australia′s territories. The Commonwealth star is an integral part of the flag. In fact, it is a national symbol of significance in its own right. Its symbolism has been widely adopted in Commonwealth heraldry, as it formed part of the original Commonwealth coat of arms granted in 1908 and the present arms granted in 1912. It is found in the insignia of many of the elements of the Australian system of honours and awards, and one example of this is on the uniforms of the Australian Federal Police. The government′s position is quite clear: given the significance of the Commonwealth star, the Australian people should also be consulted before any change is made.
Another area of concern was raised under section 8 of the Flags Act. Some of the opposition members oppose the retention of section 8 of the Flags Act, which states that nothing in the Flags Act affects the right or privilege of a person to fly the Union Jack. Clause 8 has no bearing on the bill′s objective, which is to ensure that the Australian people alone approve a new national flag. There is absolutely nothing in the Flags Act or this bill which prevents people from flying, subject to flag protocol, any Australian flag or, frankly, the flag of any nation.
In her speech, the member for Prospect suggested that the government had failed to act on the concerns of many Australians that thousands of British subjects who are not yet Australian citizens would be eligible to vote on whether or not to change the flag. She has not, however, urged such a course herself. I think she is probably too experienced for that. In 1981 the Commonwealth and the states agreed that Australian citizenship should be the basis of the right to vote in Australian federal and state elections but that non-Australian citizens who already enjoyed the vote should retain it. These persons included citizens not only of the United Kingdom but of nearly 50 members of the Commonwealth of Nations and the Republic of Ireland.
This bill is about enfranchising all elements of the Australian community in decisions about the national flag. Frankly, the government is not interested in proposals to disenfranchise certain groups of people from this decision. The government believes that all persons who have the right to vote should be entitled to do so at federal, state and territory elections and at constitutional referenda and to vote, if need be, on the national flag. Once again, may I thank all those members who took part in this rather long debate, and I commend the bill to the House.