Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Thursday 22 August 1996

Jackie Kelly (Liberal Party of Australia) – Member for Lindsay (NSW)

I have to chuckle at the allegation of the member for Prospect (Mrs Crosio) that this debate is some sort of a red herring when that was the classic manoeuvre of the previous Prime Minister whenever he was questioned on this country′s economy. He would throw up the republic, and away he would go. Be he in France, America or anywhere, he would go for this tremendous discourse on the republic when we were examining the economy of Australia.

That is where last night′s budget comes into play. It is finally reining in a $100 million dollar debt to provide a future for our children. I never heard anything about a future for our children in the discussions on the other side of the House from this `now, now′ opposition: `Give me it now, mummy. I want it now.′ We have built up this bankcard with a debt of a $100 million dollars which we now have to pay back.

Flags are a part of a strong military tradition that has been an integral part of military forces as far back as the Roman Empire, when elaborate eagles were hoisted above the melee of hand-to-hand combat and used as rallying points for the Roman military units in battle. The battle was lost when the eagle was captured. The ferocity with which troops defended their eagle is legendary.

When another army′s standard was raised over land, then that land had been conquered. Fighting to recover and resurrect your eagle or standard or flag became an end in itself for the troops on the ground. Far from the decisions of high command and political imperatives, troops on the ground would rally around a flag.

Flags have a history of symbolism for military forces. This tradition of the flag is alive and well among Australian veterans, ex-service personnel and current serving defence force personnel. It is merely coincidental to them that the symbol they carried into battle at Gallipoli, the symbol that was raised over New Guinea towns retaken from the Japanese in World War II, the symbol that was flown at Japanese surrender ceremonies and flown with our forces in Korea and Vietnam, happened to have a Union Jack in the top left corner.

The original competition to design a flag held in 1901 by the new Commonwealth government did not require the inclusion of a Union Jack in the design as a condition of entry. It was optional. Numerous flags were entered; 32,823 entries were considered and only some had the Union Jack or any reference to the Union Jack on them. Yet the blue ensign was chosen as Australia′s official and naval flag. The red ensign was chosen for the merchant navy.

The winning choice for the Australian national flag featured the five stars of the Southern Cross, which was an important navigational symbol for early sailors and settlers; the Commonwealth Star, with seven points - six for the original six states and one for the Australian territories; and the combined crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick, representing the origin of Australia′s first immigrants.

This happenstance, this incident in history, this competition in 1901, this reflection of tastes in the early 1900s, resulted in the rallying symbol for Australian forces in Gallipoli and diggers who spearheaded victories in France, such as General Monash. On 8 August 1918, when his troops broke through the German lines and turned the tide of war, he sought his chief to signal to the Governor-General on behalf of the Australian troops that the Australian flag had been hoisted over Harbonnieres at midday that day.

The flag was carried into New Guinea at the outbreak of World War I by the naval and military forces which captured German colonies. It was flown on the cruiser Sydney in the first naval battle of the war. Again, in World War II, Australian POWs held by the Japanese secretly made Australian ensigns to keep up morale. In fact, in 1945, when Singapore was retaken, the first flag to fly was an Australian ensign made by Australian prisoners of X3 working camp Bukit Panjang. Again, in Kokoda, Korea, Long Tan, Nui Dat, Cambodia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Somalia and Rwanda, Australian troops have marched beneath the flag of stars, the stars and crosses, the Aussie flag.

It has now acquired a deep and significant meaning for many Australians: 263,000 Veterans′ Affairs pensioners; 58,000 serving members; and the wives and families of every person who ever served under the military symbol chosen so long ago but which is now the symbol of parliamentary democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech, and a rallying point in the minds of military personnel who have reason to question why they are in prison, why they are risking life and limb, why they are fighting far from home.

That rallying symbol holds incredibly dear and special memories for people like Harry McKay in my electorate of Lindsay. He is a sweet old gentleman who lives in Glenmore Park. He was a sergeant major with 2/6 cavalry commandos. As a young, newly married man in 1939, he carried the Australian flag, as it is today, overseas with him, and he still carries it today. It is a significant symbol for him of his sacrifice and that of his mates - his best friend, who died beside him and who was buried with the Australian flag. When you realise the depth of feeling and memory that defence personnel have attributed to the flag over the years, it seems quite arbitrary for government to change the flag on a political whim.

This is an important symbol for much of Australian society - monarchists and republicans alike. It is important to distinguish the debate about a new flag from the debate about a new constitution. It is not about a republic; it is about memories and vision. People are passionate about their experiences under the flag, not only in war, but in sporting triumphs. Visions of the Australian flag are synonymous with memories of standing on a podium with the Australian national anthem playing at a presentation ceremony for a gold medal. Also, at official occasions, memories of the flag are part and parcel of people′s memories of a significant occasion in their lives, when they were present at some occasion with distinguished dignitaries or at burials, or occasions like raising the flag on Mount Everest or on the moon. Occasions throughout history are scattered with images of the flag. That flag has come to mean more than the Union Jack, the Southern Cross and the Commonwealth Star. The flag is now intertwined with people′s memories of occasions of patriotism, of war, of sport, of triumphs, of distinguished occasions.

For quite a lot of people, and quite possibly the majority of people in Australia, that flag is of great significance to them. But without a referendum, how would you know? How would you know what the majority of Australians are thinking about their flag, about their rallying point, about their call to arms, if we do not ask them by way of a referendum? That, Mr Deputy Speaker, is perhaps one of the significant reasons, one of the vital flaws in the opposition while it was in government, one of the essential elements of my being here today - when government got so far from the people that it failed to ask them on matters that counted.

The anger in my electorate from monarchists and republicans alike over the treatment by the New South Wales Premier of the Governor of New South Wales was tangible, and they demonstrated it at the polls. The arrogance of Paul Keating in his treatment of the Queen, again, was demonstrated in anger at the polls. People who have attached a special significance to the flag - for some of them, it could have been any design. It could even have been a can of baked beans, but it is the symbol that is attached to those memories, that is the thing that counts with them. That is the thing that really matters to them.

If a government were to unilaterally change that memory, that symbol of their dedication, their sacrifice and their occasion, that government would be punished at the polls. That is what this legislation is all about. We gave an electoral undertaking not to change the flag without consulting the people of Australia. We gave it on Anzac Day. We gave it to keep faith with the Australian people. That is what we are doing here today with this bill.

Any government, as the member for Prospect so tritely puts it, who comes in and seeks to repeal this legislation without a referendum and introduce their own flag will suffer similarly at the polls. The outcry and the ultimate punishment at the polls for changing, for repealing, this legislation will deter future governments from any such action.

This is not patriotic breast beating; this is carrying out an election promise, an election commitment. It is keeping faith with the Australian people. It is honouring our commitment to maintain faith with the Australian people who had lost complete trust in their political leaders, who are totally cynical about the political process and who can identify strongly with the reining in of the budget on Tuesday night, the paying back of the Mastercard. They feel that that is their duty for their country, for their future, for their children. If you spend up big on bankcard this month then you pay it back next month.

Well, we have spent up big on bankcard. We have received all the benefits, we have taken all the goodies. Now it is time to pay back the bankcard for our children. Those people going off to war under the flag were not thinking that they would come back alive. They were not thinking that they were going to come out of this with more in their pockets at the end of the week. They were not thinking that this was the right thing for them personally. They were thinking that it was for the betterment of their country, for the future of their children. They marched out to war in full knowledge that they were risking life and limb and they did it for their children. That is exactly what we did on Tuesday night - we brought in a budget for our children. By the year 2000 we will be back in the black, we will have a strong economy and our children will have jobs. Our country will have a future. That is what has always driven Australians, from Gallipoli forward.

The fact that there may be some alleged constitutional impediment that they can challenge in the High Court sounds familiar. I have heard it over the last few months. That still does not destroy the will of the people. What the people want is significant and they will demonstrate it. If you try to change that, they will demonstrate it to you again and again. The people of Australia want to be consulted on significant issues such as the republic and the flag. And we will consult them. They will have a voice in significant discussions. We are not political leaders who will just unilaterally take action that affects the people of Australia. Once Australian views are known in a referendum then it will be a very game government which subsequently changes that legislation.

The member for Prospect also brought up the point about 250,000 British citizens eligible to vote in Australia who may get to vote in this referendum. Wow! We are going to consider a minority view. Forty per cent of Australians are overseas born or have overseas born parents. I know; I am one of them. To go to each section of the Australian community accordingly and excise them from a referendum because they are from Britain, they are from outer Mongolia or they are from the moon - I really do not think that is going to go down terribly well with the Australian electorate. They will have their say. In the end the Australian people will carry you back to the polls and hold you accountable, as they did in Lindsay on 2 March.

Everyone who votes has a prejudice. They have made up their minds. They hold an opinion. For those opposite to think that 250,000 British citizens will be prejudiced and therefore ineligible to vote – I do not think I have ever heard anything quite as preposterous as that in my short time in parliament. Talk about red herrings! That is the minor objection that the member for Prospect has to this bill. To discount a minority group in a decision that is going to affect all Australians, possibly their children and probably themselves? They are not allowed to be involved in that decision? That is not the government we are going towards. That is not the government that the Howard government is trying to achieve.

We are bringing faith back to the people. We are including them in decisions and we are being very consultative in our endeavours to restore the Australian electors′ faith in their leadership, to tune them back in to their government and to their political processes and to get them to feel that their vote is important, that their political views are significant. That has been my leadership style in the electorate of Lindsay and it will certainly be considerably at odds with the previous government′s style possibly in the near future.

I notice that a lot of people are considering an early election in my electorate – the Daily Telegraph for one, the member for Jagajaga (Ms Macklin) with her questions yesterday, and the member for Dobell (Mr Lee). I seem to have copped a lot of attention suddenly. After 15 years suddenly the Labor Party realises that the electorate of Lindsay exists, that it counts, that it matters. Suddenly they are very concerned about the people of my electorate – but don′t let them have a vote in the referendum on the flag; we would not want to consult them on an issue like that now, would we?

This bill is in keeping with an election commitment we gave to the people of Australia. If the Labor Party wish to indicate their will to simply re-enact it and roll it out once they regain government, then so be it. Let them be judged on that if that is their sole and single objection to this bill and they want to challenge it in the High Court – go right ahead. But I know who will tell them what is what at the next election.

The people of Australia have recognised the X-generation in parliament. I am here; I am staying. The baby boomers are moving over and making room for the next generation. People of the X-generation do not want a government of people who are off with the fairies, people who are not consulting them, people who are not empowering them with a vote and a say and an opinion. They wish to be consulted. And this legislation is our way of doing it. I commend the bill to the House.

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