Parliamentary Debates

House of Representatives, Thursday 22 August 1996

The Hon. Janice Crosio MBE (Australian Labor Party) – Member for Prospect (NSW)

I know there are only about three minutes to go before question time and you will be calling this debate to a halt, so I will continue a large part of my debate on the Flags Amendment Bill when I resume after the completion of government business, question time and the MPI.

In the meantime, I remind the honourable member for Bradfield (Dr Nelson) that, as we stated in the House, the opposition is supporting the bill before the House. What concerns me is the myths associated with the flag. The honourable member for Bradfield mentioned the book written by Carol Foley. If he was being honest, he would have mentioned that she described very fully some of those myths and how they came about, how they grew because of people′s imaginations or because of quotes similar to the ones that the honourable member for Bradfield has cited during the debate.

As I said, I have a lot to say on this bill. I find it very cynical of the government to introduce a bill like this in the middle of a budget - and I will go into greater detail later as to why. This government has just brought down one of the most horrific budgets in living memory, one of the most horrific budgets that this country will ever experience, and yet, all of a sudden – when people demand that politicians should be fighting for them so that unemployment queues do not get longer; so that HECS funding is looked at; so that health programs are contained – what do we find in the middle of the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker? The government – surprise, surprise – decides to bring forward the debate on the flag.

On this side of the House we have said time and time again that we will not be opposing the legislation but we certainly will be making some comments not only about the cynicism but also about the manipulation of the public at large in this country. This is an indulgence that I would have thought the Prime Minister (Mr Howard), and certainly his manager of government business in this House, could ill afford at this stage, knowing full well the amount of legislation that is mounting up, and knowing full well that they are going to have great difficulty in even attempting to get part of their legislative program through this House before the time for debate expires.

At a time when the Australian people are crying out under the weight of this budget′s initiatives and injustices, at a time when the Australian people are tearing their hair out over the Prime Minister′s avalanche of broken promises, at a time when the Australian people want answers from the Prime Minister and justice and equity returned to their communities, what does he give us? He gives us a debate about the flag or, more specifically, about protecting the flag.

The coalition must really think it has its finger on the pulse of this nation. We in the Labor Party have never fooled the people; we have never said that we would change the flag without the people′s consent. We would never, ever do that.

Debate adjourned at 2pm and resumed at 4.26 pm

Just before question time when I was interrupted, I was endeavouring to explain why I believe that this is nothing more than a naked manipulation and a cynical, miserable and cheap trick to bring a debate like this on in the middle of budget week. I am saying this because if that lot over there think that the Australian people are really going to be deceived by what I can only say is a limp-wristed attempt to divert the attention of the public away from the main game – that is the effect that this budget will have on the people – then they are sadly mistaken.

Part of the government′s tactic is that it wants this debate to degenerate into some sort of an argument over the present status of the Australian flag. It figures that the more controversy it can generate around the debate, the more chance it has of knocking its bad news budget from the nation′s front pages. We in the Australian Labor Party will not be giving the government that pleasure. We will not accommodate the government in its plans by getting down into the gutter with it.

The government is seeking to rug itself up in the red, white and blue of the Australian flag while at the same time attempting to besmirch any party or organisation which opposes the bill as being anti-flag or indeed anti-Australian. Again, we will not be giving the government that pleasure. The Labor Party is supporting the bill. What we oppose is the deceit and hypocrisy which drove the government to introduce the legislation in the first place.

Through this legislation the coalition is implying with its usual bovine grace that the flag is not safe under another government, that the opposition when returned to power would change the flag by stealth and that legislation is needed to protect the flag from any of our evil tricks; yet the facts speak for themselves. The Australian Labor Party has made it clear in this parliament and to the people of Australia time and time again that we would never support the changing of the flag by anything other than the popular support of the Australian people.

Let us look at Labor′s past record on the question of changing the flag. Former Prime Minister Keating had this to say in this very chamber on 5 May 1992:

I have made it clear that the Government will not be seeking to change the flag other than by a clear majority of Australians being in favour of it.

In answer to a question on notice from the honourable member for Wide Bay (Mr Truss) on 8 October 1992 regarding plans to change the flag, Mr Keating replied:

No scheme would be contemplated, however, which did not involve an act of choice by the Australian electorate between the current design and any proposed new design or designs.

Later still, on 9 June 1994, Mr Keating had this to say on the same question:

Whatever happens in this matter over time, this is a matter for the public at large to express themselves about.

Again five days later on 14 June of that same year he stated:

I have got an opinion on the flag, but I don′t have a plan for the flag.

So the former Prime Minister and the Labor Party′s stance on this question in the past has been unambiguous. We would not agree to there being a change in the flag unless it was a change sanctioned by the majority of Australians, and the present leadership of the party has been equally explicit on this issue.

Despite this, despite the very clear message that we and all other political parties and interested groups have sent to the present coalition government and the people of Australia, the Liberal and National parties have now brought us to this point - debating this bill during budget week. The government is addressing a threat that never existed. We have an army of backbenchers on a phantom crusade. Even Harold Scruby and Ausflag, that group best known in this country for its efforts to promote a debate on the Australian flag, are in favour of a plebiscite on the issue.

If even the most outspoken critics of the present Australian flag strongly believe in the necessity of a plebiscite before there is any change, if there is no real opposition, what is the purpose of this bill? As I have said before, it is a diversion, plain and simple. It is a rather clumsy attempt to create a diversion at that. It would be laughable were it not for the fact that the government is displaying their contempt for our national symbols by using the flag as the basis for their cynical distraction. They have taken the bread away from the people of Australia in a budget. They have taken the teeth and the hearing aids from the pensioners, and here they are now providing us with this circus.

This bill is a sign to all Australians of how morally and politically impoverished the government really is. Over the last 13 years we have heard the members of the coalition accuse the Labor Party - quite wrongly, might I add - of attempting to use our national symbols for some grubby political ends. Now in their first six months in office they are literally running over each other to do exactly that.

While the country feels the cold steel of the Prime Minister′s budgetary acts, while thousands more ordinary Australians now pour over the classifieds for jobs, as more Australians needlessly join the snake-like queues at the Department of Social Security, while they suffer the loss of faith and self-worth that comes from being made redundant from their jobs and while they wonder how to pay their bills and look after their families, we are being treated to a chant of hollow patriotism in this parliament. I find it difficult to think of anything more insulting.

The members of the government like parading and being seen with their little Australian flag lapel badges. They like turning up to ceremonies on Australia Day or Anzac Day and giving their speeches on the sanctity of the flag and their devotion to it. In past debates in this House just the mere mention of the flag caused them to huff and puff and turn red in the face like a bunch of tired old Colonel Blimps.

In fact, it was on Anzac Day when the Prime Minister (Mr Howard), with all the swollen patriotic pride he could muster, announced his intention to introduce this bill into parliament. His and the government′s devotion to the flag extends only so far as it remains politically expedient. This bill exposes them, at the first chance in government, as using our flag as an instrument in a tawdry political game. They have dirtied their hands with the budget and now they are trying to wipe it off with the flag. That is how far their devotion extends.

For the record and for those people in the gallery - for the benefit of all Australian people, in fact – let me say that the only people guilty of changing any of Australia′s national flags in the past were the Liberal Party, the exhausted tories at the end of the 1960s. In 1967 Harold Holt, the then Prime Minister of Australia, the head of the Liberal Party and the coalition government, dumped the Royal Australian Navy′s white ensign with its red cross of St George in favour of the present flag with the Southern Cross in blue. The Liberal Party dumped a flag under which Australians had fought and died in three previous wars without a single ounce of consultation with the Australian people. There was no plebiscite, there was no vote and there was no prior announcement in order to promote debate. It was just done – full stop.

The Liberal Party′s track record on this issue stinks to high heaven. They are trying to claim the high moral ground, yet they find it very hard – and they will continue to find it very hard – to claim that ground because they are really standing at the bottom of the ditch. Spare us in the debate the hypocrisy – that fake moral indignation which we have already had to listen to from the honourable member for Bradfield (Dr Nelson) – and that patriotic breast-beating. You do not fool us and you certainly do not fool the Australian public.

This is all apart from the fact that the contents of the bill itself are completely unconvincing. Not only is their diversion as politically obvious as it is immature, but it is held together by a lick and a promise. It is as flawed as it is flimsy. Let us start by looking at the bill itself and whether or not it is constitutional. Section 1 of chapter 1 of the Commonwealth constitution states:

The legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament, which shall consist of the Queen, a Senate, and a House of Representatives, and which is herein-after called "The parliament," or "The Parliament of the Commonwealth."

The point made by some of Australia′s leading experts on constitutional law, including Professor George Winterton, the Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of New South Wales, and Professor Cheryl Saunders, the Director of the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies, is that this bill is unconstitutional and it is open to challenge in the High Court because it effectively places a fourth power in the parliament – the people of Australia, who would vote through a referendum on the flag.

In the government′s rush to beat the patriotic drum and drown out all the budget protest, it has introduced a bill which is legally open to a challenge in the High Court. In introducing a legally questionable piece of legislation, it has discredited this parliament. The hypocrisy continues. Not only is the government not above abusing our national symbols for their own political gain but it has no reservations about dragging the standing and the reputation of the parliament through the mud in the process. Again, this is a crime which the coalition took great pains to accuse Labor of during its 13 years in office. It came to power promising to raise the standards of the parliament.

Let me read an extract from the Liberal Party′s speaker′s notes, published in November 1995. It states that the Liberal Party, once in government, would `restore pride and confidence in parliament and the way it works′. How can a government, which introduces a bill which challenges the very tenets of our constitution, be construed as restoring pride and confidence in our parliament? In the same guide it promised it would `improve scrutiny of legislation′. In this respect the government can have it either way. It has either been so slipshod in its preparation of this bill that it has completely failed to submit it to a thorough enough inspection or are we to believe that it has intentionally introduced a flawed bill to this House knowing full well that by its unconstitutional nature it would challenge the reputation and standing of this parliament? Which is it to be, or are you saying that there are no weaknesses?

When the Prime Minister announced his intention to introduce this bill on Anzac Day, he made it quite clear that he would be placing the legislative equivalent of Fort Knox around our flag to make it secure. In reality, this bill protects the flag with the legislative equivalent of a house of cards. Any future parliament, as long as the government at the time can guarantee itself a majority in both houses, can repeal the legislation as easily as it was introduced. Fort Knox this bill is not. It is another sign that the Prime Minister is all about saying one thing to the people of Australia and then just practising another within this parliament.

What other mistakes did the Prime Minister make on Anzac Day? He had this to say about the bill: `This will mean that no politician, no political party and no special interest group will be able to tamper with the design of our flag.′ Such is the Prime Minister′s impressive foresight, as evidenced by this statement, that this bill makes no allowance for the future government to make any small cosmetic and prudent change to the flag, even if national events demand such a change take place, without resorting to a $52 million – in today′s dollars – national referendum.

For example, when – and not if – the Northern Territory achieves statehood, the bill does not allow the government of the time to change the seven-pointed federation star to an eight-pointed symbol without spending that $50 million on a national plebiscite. Quite obviously, this is a ridiculous situation. It is even more ridiculous when it has been brought about by a government which has preached frugality and economy with all the piety of a bunch of Trappist monks.

Finally, the government in introducing this bill has failed to act on the concerns of many vocal groups in the electorate by making no mention of barring the thousands of British subjects, not yet Australian citizens, who are eligible to vote in a referendum on the flag should it ever be held. It has been estimated that in Australia there are 250,000 British citizens who are eligible to vote but who are not Australian citizens. It is impossible to believe that these hundreds and thousands of voting British subjects, who may have a strong allegiance to Australia – and I do not doubt that – but still not strong enough to take out our citizenship, would not be torn between the symbols of the country of their birth, of which they remain citizens, and the land in which they now live.

This is a question which demands attention, but it is not in this one-page bill. If the British subjects in Australia have not felt strongly enough to take out our citizenship, if they still value the ties that bind them to their motherland over the ties that would bind them to this land, how can we then expect them to vote without prejudice on the flag of this nation, which could see the abolition of their own flag, the Union Jack, from the corner of our emblem? Do we seriously expect those British citizens in Australia to approach this issue without looking back over their shoulders at the nation to which they still remain loyal, the nation of their birth?

But this bill provides no answers to that or to any other question that I have raised. In the government′s haste to take the nation′s attention away from the inequities of its budget and its litter trail of broken promises, it has paid no heed to the details, to the ramifications, that this bill now throws up.

To go back to a previous point, perhaps the government just did not care. For its purposes, any bill was good enough, however flawed, as long as it camouflaged the budget fallout. It was, `Let′s get it in, let′s get up, let′s debate it, get it on the front pages. The Labor Party will get down to the gutter. They will say the flag is no good and then we will take away from the press what is really the hurt being caused by the budget.′

Whatever one′s personal opinion on the Australian flag, there is one thing we can all agree on: it deserves better treatment than this. It deserves better than to be mistreated by a government more interested in self-service than serving the rest of us. It deserves better than to be used as a pawn in a cheap political ploy, a cynical diversion constructed solely for the government′s benefit. It deserves better than to be tugged about by a bunch of hypocrites who for 13 years cried out about the degradation of the flag and then degraded it themselves the first chance they got.

As I said in my opening statement, this bill is a giant waste of the parliament′s time and energy. The Australian flag deserves better than this and the Australian people deserve better.

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