Federal Politics

Time for an inclusive, more meaningful Australian flag

Our national heraldry could contain a condensed history lesson, writes JOHN BLAXLAND

Australian flag design by John Blaxland of ANU.
Australian flag design by John Blaxland of ANU. 

Australia had a flag competition late last century and many of the design alternatives sought to emulate the elegant simplicity of the Japanese and Canadian flags with stylised kangaroos, or a version of the Southern Cross. But they were invariably unsuccessful, being too bland, too politically laden, like the Eureka flag, or too reliant on green and gold.

With the place of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders coming to be recognised, two more national flags emerged. Recognising them is important, but makes for a cumbersome arrangement. Surely there is a better way to acknowledge the original inhabitants and reach an accommodation with the post-1788 European order?

Australia's current flag is full of symbolism, with much to respect about it. But the symbolism is heavily reliant on and subordinate to Britain's Union Jack in the top left hand corner. As a sixth-generation Australian of British descent I, for one, appreciate the symbolism. Removing the Union Jack entirely would result in many detractors, so it has to feature, at least in part. Scores are emotionally invested in the current flag and opposition is too strong to see it replaced by bland offerings. Yet Australia has become multicultural, with large migrant communities from places other than the British Isles and, even among those from the British Isles, many are uncomfortable with the current design.

Some will resist change, arguing that Australians have always fought under the current flag. But many served in the Anglo-Boer War and during the two world wars under Britain's Union Jack instead. Perhaps another more inclusive and captivating design would be acceptable.

It is time for a new flag. But to avoid being scuttled by defenders of the old one, the replacement must acknowledge the European and particularly British heritage as well as the significance of the unique Australian configuration of the Southern Cross with its one five-pointed and four seven-pointed stars.

South Africa's current flag is instructive. It is rich, colourful, attractive and meaningful, incorporating the Dutch flag and the African National Congress' colours. The one proposed here is similarly colourful and meaningful.

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In designing this new flag, Midnight Oil's powerful song, Beds Are Burning, echoed in my mind; as did the thought of my ancestors' reliance on Aboriginal assistance in crossing the Blue Mountains in May 1813 - 200 years ago this year. Placing the black, red and yellow colours from the Aboriginal flag (symbolising the Aboriginal people, the red ochre of the land and the life-giving sun) at the leading edge gives due recognition to the first people of Australia and the land itself. The red band shaped as a boomerang also symbolises local ingenuity and adaptation and, along with the dots, pays homage to unique local artistry.

The traditional Aboriginal sun is converted into a seven-pointed Federation Star, which symbolises the Australian federation with its six original states and the Commonwealth government. The star includes 250 dots representing the remaining 150 aboriginal languages and the languages of Australia's many immigrants from around the world - all together as one.

The red, in turn, abuts a band of white before the blue which, together with the red, becomes a sliver of the Union Jack. This symbolises additional continuity with the old flag, as well as recognition of the British-derived national institutions, culture and language that are the foundations of modern Australia. But the sharp edges of the Union Jack are softened, symbolising the modification of British institutions for Australian conditions. Reversing the boomerang's direction would preclude this symbolism as the angles of the red, white and blue bands would not be discernibly derived from the Union Jack.

The white in the stars of the current Southern Cross design become green and gold, Australia's national colours, with the band of green abutting the blue and surrounding the yellow having a double symbolism: first, representing the green and blue colours associated with Torres Strait Islanders; and second, symbolising a modern, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive Australia associated with green and gold. Leading with black, as a second level of symbolism, also recognises New Zealand's role in shaping Australia's identity through the legend of Anzac Day and the close ties across the Tasman.

The new Federation Star and Southern Cross design also provide a distinctive symbol as recognisable as Canada's maple leaf while maintaining continuity with the old.

Being inclusive but distinctive is the best way to replace a flag that currently presents Australia as a subordinate nation. This new design shows much to celebrate and reflect upon.

Stepping back from it, scanning left to right, one sees a representation of a country informed by its history- initially Aboriginal, then British, then distinctly independent and multicultural. Combined, this points to Australians being aware of their past, benefiting from and respecting their inherited institutions, while also looking to a bright future together, with a path lit by the Federation Star and Southern Cross.

Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.