Flying the flag for a fresh start

Flying the flag for a fresh start

Australia needs a new flag that acknowledges our past and one which we can fly proudly into the future.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has floated the idea of replacing his nation's imperial blue ensign with a more distinctive national flag. Scotland, meanwhile, is considering secession from the union in Britain and flag designers are having a field day.

Australia, likewise, needs to get serious about selecting a new, more inclusive flag for a modern, independent, multicultural nation.

Australian flag design by John Blaxland of ANU (Artwork by Sancho Murphy).

Australian flag design by John Blaxland of ANU (Artwork by Sancho Murphy).

It is time for Australians to reflect on their own national flag, on how it came to be, on what it represents and does not represent, and to consider if a design could emerge with which all Australians can identify and which could help the nation emerge more fully from Britain's symbolic shadow.

Pledges to our indigenous population and engagement with Asia will mean nothing without a change to our flag. Australia had a flag competition late last century but it petered out due to the lack of a sufficiently inspiring design to replace the current colourful, if anachronistic, national flag.

Long after the British Empire faded into the sunset, Britain continued to dominate Australia's flag as it once did on the flags of its other imperial possessions.


Even Australia's closest Commonwealth facsimile, Canada, dropped the Union Jack from the dominant top left quadrant of its flag, in 1965. Canada chose its own design featuring the red maple leaf, with each point representing a province (state equivalents). It introduced the flag while remaining a federal bicameral constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the head of state. The introduction was controversial, particularly in French-speaking parts of Canada. In hindsight, however, few now conceive of Canada having any other flag.

Changing the flag to remove the Union Jack is not intrinsically linked to republicanism. The Canadians did not see the need to link the two. Neither should we. While many would agree it is time to move on from the vestiges of empire, they are separate issues. Like Canada, we should press through the controversy and agree on a new, more meaningful, inclusive and evocative national flag for all Australians.

In doing so, understanding who we were and who we are today is vitally important. So then, who were we when the current flag was chosen?

Australians mostly were ''old country'' migrants or descendants, living in a new federation of former colonies that were forged largely by the lash and the legacies of British class and justice.

Now, more than two centuries after the first British colonists arrived, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is preparing to acknowledge in our constitution the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - a profoundly important step for the first Australians, who have been treated appallingly in too many ways since 1788.

The worst colonial frontier violence against indigenous people happened under the Union Jack, of course, flown by colonial military units and police forces. That is a good enough reason alone, some would argue, to remove it from our own national flag, the blue ensign, with its Southern Cross and Federation star.

To be fair though, Australia's current flag is full of symbolism. The Southern Cross and the Federation star in particular have become identified with Australia. But the symbolism is heavily reliant on and subordinate to Britain's Union Jack in the top left corner.

As a sixth-generation Australian of British descent, I 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.

Naysayers argue - almost viscerally - that we are too attached to the current flag emotionally and through our wartime experiences, to ever change it. But it is important to acknowledge that ''our flag'' was, for most of Australia's war dead, the Red Ensign or the British flag - the Union Jack.

Few realise that the overwhelming majority of Australia's 102,000 war dead fought and died for the British Empire under Britain's Union Jack as their national flag. Perhaps only 1000 of Australia's war dead (excluding frontier conflict victims) died under our current flag.

While the Blue Ensign became the Australian government flag in 1901, the Australian national flag was, until 1954, the British Union Jack. It was not until the Menzies government passed the Flag Act in 1954 that the Blue Ensign became the national flag. Before that, Australians grew up more familiar with the Red Ensign - that is, the Australian flag with the Union Jack along with the Federation and Southern Cross stars set against a red rather than a blue backdrop. This was the civil ensign and was recognised as the unofficial Australian flag.

One of the most prominent illustrations of this is in the painting of the opening of Parliament in Canberra in 1927. The painting shows the then new Parliament building draped with numerous Union Jacks and Red Ensigns, with the Union Jack in the position of honour.

So unfamiliar was the blue ensign that it was even misrepresented on the cover of a booklet commemorating Gallipoli in 1915, the Southern Cross stars given only six of their seven points.

The initial red and blue ensigns were selected in 1901 and the original design retained the Victorian configuration (with a five-, six-, seven-, eight- and nine-pointed star in its Southern Cross) with a six-pointed star representing the six original states of the Commonwealth placed directly below the Union Jack. It was not until 1909 that the current seven-pointed configuration was adopted with the seventh point representing Commonwealth territories.

Even then, the red and blue ensigns were hardly distinguishable from the flags of the other former colonies retained as state flags and the flag of New Zealand. At the time that was a reasonable interpretation of the state of affairs; Australia was self-governing but it was still legally tied to the British Empire. It was not until after the Statute of Westminster that Australia gained a fuller independence. The statute was enacted by Britain on December 31, 1931 but not adopted by Australia's Parliament until October 1942. This occurred only after the British Empire was decisively discredited following the Japanese capture of Singapore in February 1942.

As American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, the 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. This is an anachronism.

That anachronism has been building in the years since World War II as Australia's identity increasingly separated from Britain. The Australian Citizenship Act of 1948 was a significant milestone. Before this, all Australians were simply ''British subjects''. Thereafter they remained British subjects and Australian citizens until Britain spurned its citizenship ties with Australia and other parts of its former empire at the tail end of the 1960s.

This followed the Suez Crisis which in 1956 saw Britain humiliated as it was compelled to return Egypt to the independence leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. This crisis marked the virtual end of Britain's ability to act as an independent imperial power, with massive ramifications for Robert Menzies and Australia. No longer would Australia continue to slavishly follow British models. Post-war migration from war-torn Europe helped make the country more distinctly different from Britain, with large waves of Italian, Greek and other migrants. Afterwards, migrants would come from elsewhere, notably Asia and Latin America, to make the Australian community even more unique and distinct. The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal People) Act of 1967 went a long way towards recognising indigenous Australians. The abandonment of ''terra nullius'' three decades later, following the High Court's verdict over Mabo, would be the trigger for a further re-evaluation of Australian identity.

In the meantime, Britain's accession to the European Community in 1973 was a further cut to the apron strings as Britain turned to favour trade with its European neighbours at the expense of its imperial offshoots in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Britain's virtual abandonment of Australia and New Zealand took place while Gough Whitlam was Australia's prime minister.

Whitlam recognised the need to divest Australia of anachronistic symbols of subordination.

The Royal Mail became Australia Post. Imperial honours were replaced by an Australian honours system, albeit still with royal patronage. And Britain's Privy Council was excised from the Australian legal system as the highest court of appeal. Even God Save the Queen was replaced as the national anthem by Advance Australia Fair.

Yet still the most prominent symbol of subordination to Britain, the Union Jack in the corner of the flag, remained. Australia retained the blue ensign as the nation's flag, even though on so many levels the anachronism of the flag's arrangement led to a discordance with Australia's increasingly independent, self-confident and multicultural identity.

That discordance was most visibly evident during the Cronulla riots, when Anglo-Celtic Australian youth wore the blue ensign as a mark of distinction from the migrant groups that had so upset them. Tattoos aplenty were to be found as well, yet tattoos of the full union jack were a rare sight. Even for those wanting to drape themselves under the blue ensign, the union jack did not evoke the attachment of other distinctly Australian symbols such as the southern cross in its uniquely Australian seven-pointed-star configuration.

Australia's current flag came to be seen as a symbol of division and disunity associated with reaction and fringe politics. Today many are uncomfortable flying it and grasp at a range of informal alternatives such as the boxing kangaroo.

The search for uniquely Australian meaning and symbolism was partially captured a few years earlier in the repatriation of an Australian unknown soldier in 1993. Previously, Australia looked to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in London as the sole place for such remembrance. Returning Australian remains for burial at the Australian War Memorial was a step towards a fuller and clearer identification of independence. It also reinforced the centrality of the Anzac soldier, the ''digger'', to the emerging sense of identity.

Unfortunately, the discordance also grew louder under Paul Keating's prime ministership. Keating's combative Celtic disparagement of all things British placed him at the forefront of Australia's culture and identity wars.

Keating's combative rather than inclusive approach to formulating the national narrative led to a counter-action identified with his political nemesis, John Howard. This counter-action arguably set back the progress towards a fuller independent identity that many clamoured for in the form of a new constitutional arrangement (a republic) and a new flag. Progress towards a new flag was also delayed in part by the lack of an evocative design that would capture the imagination. A competition was held but in an effort to keep it simple, the offerings were broadly panned as too bland and unexciting.

Most considered the blue ensign more colourful and interesting to look at. Ausflag's 2000 design also ignored the British and Aboriginal dimensions to Australia's identity. It had limited meaning and failed to stir the imagination. With a growing narrative associated with the blue ensign, the 1954 flag, many came to feel a growing emotional attachment. The designs on offer could not compete.

But the polarisation of the debate over how to define being Australian almost turned into what could be boiled down to a clash of identities based on class and culture - of a working-class Celtic version versus an upper and upper-middle class anglophile version. With this kind of polarisation, the calls for a new flag would flounder, as traditionalists were alienated, despite so much progress towards formulating an independent identity on so many other fronts. In terms of events, Gallipoli remained central, clutched by many as the key national symbol. Interestingly, here again the story was subject to reinvention.

Initially, the Australian Imperial Force fought at Gallipoli as part of the Empire - and much of the commemorative paraphernalia of the time reflects that. As the campaign progressed, however, historian C.E.W. Bean framed the events as reflecting a distinctive egalitarian facet of the Australian character. This view resonated for decades and was evoked as a source of inspiration for the 2nd AIF during World War II (1939-1945).

Then, when Peter Weir made his evocative movie Gallipoli in 1979, the notion of Gallipoli was reinvented once again; this time as a defining event which identified the Anzacs as distinctly not British. As the most prominent symbol around which to coalesce a nascent sense of independent and non-British identity, Anzac Day consequently flourished long after many had thought it would fade from national consciousness.

But the Anzac soldiers did not fight for the blue ensign. Indeed people do not generally fight for a flag. I should know. I spent nearly three decades in uniform. In reality, people fight for their family, their country, their ideals, their mates. But many are emotionally attached to the 1954 flag.

Flags are not unchangeable. Symbolism is important but Australia's defining national symbol, its flag, needs updating. And changes are not always ''revolutionary''. More often than not, change is good. And in this case, the flag is a relic of a bygone era.

Many, if not most, simply are left out of the current design. Some have called instead for the flag of the Eureka Stockade, with its white cross and stars set against blue. But this is the flag of a rebellion, co-opted by certain activist groups; it cannot be truly said to be inclusive of all Australians. Similarly, the Aboriginal flag belongs to the Aboriginal people, not the migrants since 1788.

Arguably, however, there are several ''touchstone'' symbols that can either attract or repel supporters to alternative flag designs. First is the Union Jack. To some this is simply non-negotiable. To them, no flag will be acceptable if this is removed. And yet to many others this is exactly the most repelling feature. Another touchstone is the uniquely Australian configuration of the Southern Cross - with its four seven-pointed stars and one five-pointed star. This has broad support.

Then there is the boxing kangaroo, with its green and gold - alluding to the colour of Ireland. The seven-pointed federation star is another often prominently displayed for political interviews.

Then there are the two indigenous flags. The Aboriginal flag has stark bands of black and red with a yellow sun at the centre; and the Torres Strait Islander flag has a band of green (islands), black (the people), and blue (surrounding waters), and in the middle a dancer's headdress (the white dhari) and a five-pointed star (symbolising the five points of the Torres Strait Islands).

Designs that have not addressed the majority of these touchstones have failed to generate the necessary support.

Working with graphic designers and years of discussion with anyone interested, I came up with a design that incorporates the past but presents an icon Australians can fly proudly into the future. The design attempts to recognise and incorporate aspects of the touchstones.

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 symbolic of the federation with its six original states and the Commonwealth. The star includes 250 dots representing the remaining 150 aboriginal languages and the languages of Australia's post-1788 immigrants - all together as one. This star is placed in the dominant top-left quadrant, symbolising the authority of the people of Australia, within an inclusive federation. This is the piece de resistance of the flag, much like the maple leaf is the most evocative component of the Canadian flag.

The red boomerang, in turn, abuts against a band of white, evoking a sense of being ''girt'' by sea, much like waves on a beach along the country's famous shoreline. The white abuts the blue which, together with the red and white bands, becomes a sliver of the Union Jack. This symbolises recognition of the British-derived national institutions, culture and language that are the foundations of modern Australia. But the Union Jack's sharp edges 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 become green and gold, Australia's national colours, symbolising a modern, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive Australia associated with green and gold.

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 unique federation star and Southern Cross. Everyone is included in the federation and this rendition portrays us as all in this together. As a symbol of recognition, reconciliation and inclusiveness.

Some people really like it: one prominent Australian history writer and commentator, Paul Daley, observed: ''His flag struck me as a thing of beauty, in its aesthetic and for the intention underpinning it.'' Some demand a greater publicity campaign to spread the message to bring about a change sooner than later.

Others say it is too busy, or it has too many colours. Some say it is too hard for kids to draw - but how many kids today can draw our current blue ensign accurately anyway?

The bottom line is that you can't please everyone. Canadians faced visceral opposition from some quarters in 1965, but this did not stop them pressing ahead and introducing what is now the quintessential symbol of Canada.

Here in Australia, we must choose a design or be stuck with a faintly embarrassing anachronism. What do you think? What is the way forward? It is time for an inclusive flag symbolising reconciliation. It is time for discussion and action.

John Blaxland is a sixth-generation Australian of British descent who happened to be born in Chile, speaks Spanish and Thai and is married to a Canadian. He served in the Australian army for 28 years before taking up his appointment as a historian at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @JohnBlaxland1 ; email: .

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