Our neighbour New Zealand is considering a new flag, so discussion around the barbecue this Australia Day may well gravitate to whether there is a need for Australia to have a new flag.
The main trouble is that even those who want to see Australia have a new flag are divided over what it should look like.
Five perfect Australian words
In honour of Australia Day, we asked communications expert Dean Frenkel to come up with his five favourite Australian words.
Some say we should keep the Australian imperial blue ensign forever. But it was not until the Flag Act in 1954 that it became the national flag. Prior to that, Australians were more familiar with the red ensign – the civil ensign, recognised by many as the unofficial Australian flag after Federation in 1901.
The blue ensign existed but was for official use and in limited circulation. At the opening of Parliament House in 1927, for instance, the flags flown were principally the British Union Jack (then still the Australian national flag) and the red ensign. The blue imperial ensign we currently take to be our flag was not centre stage.
Few realise that the overwhelming majority of the 102,000 Australians who fought and died for the British Empire during the two world wars did so under the Union Jack as the national flag, not the current blue ensign – although it was flown often enough as a subordinate symbol. Even Australia's "strategic cousins", the Canadians (who lost a similar number killed in war fighting under a similar imperial pennant), dropped the Union Jack from the dominant top left quadrant of their flag in 1965 while remaining a federal bi-cameral constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the head of state. In other words, the flag issue is not dependent on the question of whether Australia should be a republic. Constitutionally it is much more straightforward.
Post-war European migration further differentiated Australia from Britain. Then in 1973 Britain joined the European Community, apparently spurning its imperial offshoots. On so many levels the anachronism of the flag's arrangement has led to a discordance with Australia's increasingly independent, self-confident and multicultural identity. Today many simply are uncomfortable flying it.
Comics have observed that the current Australian flag is the British flag on a starry night. The dominant top left quadrant belongs to the flag of another nation, making Australia symbolically subordinate to Britain, as it was when it was first introduced. That is an anachronism.
Facing similar dynamics "across the ditch", New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key understands this and is boldly setting New Zealand on a path which Australia should follow.
In designing one, Australia should ensure its flag is distinct, inclusive and symbolic of the nation's maturity and independence.
For an evocative design to capture the imagination, there are several touchstone symbols worth considering.
- First (ironically enough for a new flag design) is the Union Jack. To some no flag will be acceptable if this is removed, yet to others this is exactly the most repellent feature. Some accommodation would help.
- Second is the oft-tattooed and uniquely Australian configuration of the Southern Cross. A flag design without this will face resistance.
- Third is the seven-pointed federation star – a symbol of Australia as an independent state.
- Then there are the Indigenous flags of the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islanders. Designs that ignore them skim over a large part of Australia's identity.
My suggested design recognises Australia's inherent complexity and fosters reconciliation, incorporating aspects of the touchstones.
Placing the black, red and yellow colours at the leading edge gives due recognition to the original inhabitants and the land. The red band, a boomerang, symbolises local ingenuity and adaptation and, along with the dots, pays homage to indigenous artistry.
A seven-pointed star symbolic of the federation, with its six original states and the Commonwealth, includes a novel arrangement of 250 dots representing the languages of Indigenous people and of migrants to Australia since1788 – all as one within an inclusive federation. The federation star is in the dominant quadrant, symbolising the authority of the Australian people, rather than the Union Jack.
The red boomerang, in turn, abuts a band of white: "girt" by sea much like waves on a beach along the shoreline. The white abuts the blue which, together with the red and white, becomes akin to a sliver of the Union Jack, in recognition of British-derived institutions, culture and language, without suggesting subordination.
The stars of the Southern Cross, with their familiar seven-pointed stars, represent continuity with the old flag.
Scanning left to right, one sees a country informed by its history – initially Aboriginal, then British, then distinctly independent and multicultural. Everyone is included in the federation (dots in the yellow federation star) together, as a symbol of recognition, reconciliation and inclusiveness. Yes, it is a little bit complex, but so are many great flags like the USA's, South Africa's and the evocative new one proposed for New Zealand.
In Australia we must choose a new design or be stuck with a faintly embarrassing anachronism. It's time for an inclusive flag symbolising reconciliation that we can all be proud to fly.
Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Twitter: JohnBlaxland1