Rally around the flag But which one?

Editorial, The Age, 20 March 2004

The national flag should not display the Union Jack. Otherwise it′s pretty much OK.

Mark Latham has declared that if Labor is returned to federal office later this year he will revive the push for an Australian republic. The Opposition Leader has been silent, however, concerning a related issue of national symbolism. No doubt Mr Latham has views on the curious survival of the flag of the United Kingdom as part of Australia′s national flag, but he has chosen not to make an issue of them.

The creation of an Australian republic is a much more fundamental reform, and in that sense it is a more urgent one; but it is idle, if not disingenuous, to pretend that the flag and republic questions can ultimately be separated. The flag could be changed while retaining the monarchy, it is true, but does anyone really believe that Australia is likely to become a republic without also changing its flag? The presence of the Union Jack in the national flag would seem even more anomalous in a republican Australia than it does now.

The UK flag is not just depicted on the flag to indicate a historical relationship, as some maintain. It is placed in the canton of the flag – the top left quadrant – which in heraldry depicts a relationship of subordination: the national flag we have proclaims that Australia is a part of someone else′s empire. The empire is long gone, and it is time to change the flag, too.

The question is what a new national flag should look like, and over the years successive competitions to choose a new design have generated much enthusiasm but virtually no agreement. We suspect that this is because many of the alternative flags have been drawn from a clean slate, resulting in designs that contain both a clutter of symbols – kangaroos, boomerangs and Uluru, to name but a few – and a confusion of colours – the existing red, white and blue, sometimes overlaid with the red, black and gold of the Aboriginal flag, or the green and gold worn by Australia′s sporting teams. It is not surprising that many people find these designs tasteless and silly, as well as lacking a sense of historical continuity.

But the flag does not have to be invented all over again. Why not just remove that redundant imperial symbol, the Union Jack, and otherwise leave the flag as it is? The central image on such a flag would be the image of the Southern Cross, which has been a recognised symbol of Australian nationhood since the days of the Eureka Stockade. The miners′ Southern Cross flag has perhaps become too closely associated with one end of the political spectrum in recent years to serve as a unifying national symbol, but a blue and white flag based on the Southern Cross could embrace both the traditions of Eureka and those associated with the version of the British blue ensign that Australia adopted after federation.

The stars are a good symbol for a democracy: they shine on everyone alike, and remind us that all of us who see them in this land have a common destiny. What else does a flag need to do?

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