Australia has never had a truly national flag. While we currently fly one of our dominion status ensigns, we have never had the same debate when we abandoned God Save the Queen and embraced an anthem of our own.
As a practical people, often sneering towards symbolism, Australians drifted awkwardly and gradually from dominion to effective independence in the latter half of the 20th century with no clear cut date. We are yet to truly commemorate the end of old Australia and the beginning of new Australia.
A new flag is needed but we must understand our transformative history to appreciate why.
Australian history is not linear but the tale of two separate societies with different values, standards and identities. From Federation till the 1960s, we saw ourselves as British first and Australian an important but far-distant second.
Our first significant act of parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act and the broader White Australia Policy, designed to preserve our British character. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a new Australia emerged: an outward looking, independent Australia ready to engage with our own region and embrace a multicultural society.
In 1901, Australia did not become an independent country. Rather six separate British colonies federated and were soon promoted to the status of British dominion. Australia did not have, or request, its own foreign policy. We did not have, or want, our own anthem.
The category of Australian citizen did not exist (and would not for half a century) because our ancestors were proud British subjects. Our longest serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, described himself as “British to the bootstraps”.
As late as 1954, the Sydney Morning Herald declared as matter of fact, “Australia is and always will be a British nation”.
These are the circumstances under which our current flag was created, winning a design contest in 1901. It was not intended to be unique or independent but the very opposite. It was specifically designed to be comparable to other dominion flags.
The prominent Union Flag in the top left corner sent an unambiguous message; this dominion is subordinate to the British Empire. As Menzies put it in 1950, in an Australia Day speech no less, “It is a good thing to be an Australian but this is not enough”. Britishness defined the nation.
Flags of the British Empire
New Australia does not have a birth date. It was a gradual process spurred more by Britain abandoning us than us leaving them.
Symbolically the terms “Britain” and “British” were reclaimed in 1961 to refer to the United Kingdom only. It was no longer a British Commonwealth and we were no longer, as our most influential early prime minister, Alfred Deakin, put it, “independent Australian Britons”.
Militaristically, Britain left our region, withdrawing troops East of Suez, including Singapore in 1971. Economically, Britain gave up on preferential Commonwealth trade, joining the European Economic Community in 1973.
There were many significant milestones on the road to new Australia. We introduced our own honours system, the Order of Australia, in 1975. With great difficulty we eventually adopted our own anthem in the 1984.
In 1986, the Australia Acts severed the last legislative links with Britain making the one time mother country officially a “foreign power” (as ruled by the High Court in 1999).
Of far more significance, we officially dumped the White Australia Policy in 1973. We opened diplomatic relations with China and we passed the Racial Discrimination Act.
Multiculturalism became our official policy and we declared that racism has no place here. This was the beginning of new Australia.
What then should be the criteria for a new Australian flag? I propose the following as essential elements:
- It must be apolitical, a flag that can be waved by conservatives and liberals alike.
- It must be unambiguously Australian and instantly recognisable.
- It must be relatively simple, a design children can draw.
To this end, I offer the Southern Stars flag (main article image) but certainly welcome criticisms, variations and other designs that also meet the same basic criteria. In particular, I think Russell Kennedy’s new flag design – as published previously on The Conversation – is an excellent option.
The Southern Stars flag has two basic elements. The green and yellow represent the colours of our floral emblem, the Golden Wattle. They also represent the iconic Green and Gold worn by our sports women and men. When we present ourselves on the world stage, these are our distinctive colours.
Similarly, the Southern Cross is a national treasure. Since the battle of Eureka in 1854, the Southern Cross has been a symbol of Australian democracy and independence.
It has been suggested that any new flag must have an element to represent Indigenous Australians. On this count I respectfully disagree.
Our current flag reserves a privileged position for Britain. It would be against the spirit of a flag for all Australians to have that replaced with another privileged position. The strength of Australia comes from its multicultural society. Equally worthy of representation would be Australians with Chinese heritage or those from Ireland, Germany, France, Vietnam, the Pacific Islands and many other places.
Aboriginal recognition should be in our constitution, it should be in our school curricula and general public consciousness. A flag for new Australia, however, must be simple and powerful. It must represent all and be waved by all.
There have been many alternative Australian flag designs over the years. The Facebook group Change the Aussie Flag is in constant animated debate. John Blaxland, writing for The Conversation, proposed a deeply symbolic flag.
While I wholeheartedly prefer Blaxland’s design to our current flag, one consistent criticism has been that it is too busy and tries to say too much. Is it a flag’s job to tell a national story? I suggest it is not. What would the flag of Germany or America look like with that criteria? Any national story is contested, political and necessarily divisive. A country’s flag should unite, not divide.
Australia needs to have a mature national discussion about our flag. It took political courage and leadership to change the anthem in the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly, we need to facilitate a new debate and to explain why the change is important.
What do we want as a national symbol and how do we want to present ourselves to the world? Australians may not have a reputation as enthusiastic flag-wavers but we are a proud people with a deep devotion to this land. We deserve a flag that represents the diverse and free country we are, not the homogeneous colonies we were.
We deserve a flag for all Australians.
Editor’s note: Benjamin will be on hand for an Author Q&A session from 10am to noon AEST tomorrow (May 30). If you have any questions about designing a flag for all Australians, please post them below.