George Brown argues why we don’t need to change the Australian flag
In what has become a tedious tradition that repeats itself almost every national holiday or significant event that champions our historical heritage and connections with England, the ‘change the Aussie flag’ debate will almost undoubtedly rear its ugly head in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this October. However, the reality that proponents of a flag change invariably ignore is that any suggestion that the flag needs to be changed is based on a totally flawed logic and is additionally a severe misreading of public opinion among mainstream Australia.
Already this year on Australia Day, we saw the pro-flag change ‘cause’ being trumpeted, specifically by the lobby group ‘Ausflag’ and with the support of at least a dozen former Australians of the Year – including Prof. Patrick McGorry (2010) and Simon McKeon (2011) – where the issue again seemingly drew disproportionate amounts of media coverage. The fact is, however, changing Australia’s flag would be analogous to trying to rewrite our nation’s history and would dishonour those that have fought and died for the flag and what it represents. The typical response to arguments like this is that Australia’s current flag did not actually become our official national flag until the passage of the Flags Act (1953). However, this ignores the fact that our soldiers still fought for it (or the Red Ensign, which is the exact same design except with a red background instead of blue) as though it were the national flag in all the conflicts preceding 1953; even more grievously, it ignores all the soldiers who have fought and died for it in the conflicts since it did become the national flag – the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s, and more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, just to name a few. While this suggestion is not in the same league as the recent scandal over the ‘sex-under-the-flag’ scene in the ABC’s satirical “At Home with Julia” television show, it is still highly disrespectful to almost trivialise “the number of servicemen…who have given their lives defending the true significance and meaning of the Australian flag”.
Similarly, to say that the flag causes “confusion overseas” is to insultingly underestimate the intelligence of non-Australians. The only flag that it could conceivably be confused with is the flag of New Zealand. However, the noticeable absence of a large seven-point star in the bottom-left corner and the different coloured Southern Cross stars on the New Zealand flag serve to make them easily distinguishable. Numerous other countries’ flags have similar designs and colours (some are even exactly same), yet there is no talk of these countries changing their flags – for instance, those of Poland, Indonesia and Monaco are all very similar; the same applies for those of Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq.
Similarly, saying that the flag causes “embarrassment at home” is preposterous. An often-used argument in support of this claim is that today’s youth feel the current design of the flag and other traditional institutions are outdated and no longer relevant to our contemporary society. Speaking as an 18 year old myself, I vehemently refute that. Just because a collection of prominent Australians who have won the Australian of the Year award at some point in the last half-century or so have signed a petition saying they support changing the flag, does not mean society would agree. Any referendum (for that is what is needed to change the flag under the Flags Amendment Bill (1998), which was passed with all-party support) that lacks bipartisan approval is almost doomed to fail; the fact that there is actually bipartisan opposition to changing the flag – which is itself a minor miracle considering the mutual hostility between the parties in the current political climate – is practically the death blow for the issue. This also definitively counters the petition’s call for Parliament to show leadership on the issue – they already are…just not for the viewpoint ‘Ausflag’ would like.
Even without taking into account the bipartisan opposition, any referendum would fail decisively anyway in failing to garner popular support, if the result of the most recent Morgan Poll on the issue (April 2010) is any indication. This poll found that 69% of overall respondents wanted to keep the Union Jack on the Australian flag and 66% wanted to keep the current flag design exactly the way it is, the highest proportion since the June 1982 poll. The poll further demonstrates that the opinion I am espousing is not just one from the fringes of conservative youth politics, but is rather broadly indicative of my entire generation. The poll not only found that the youngest age brackets (14-17yrs and 18-24yrs) were both overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the flag as is, but that they were in fact even more strongly for keeping it than practically all other age groups, with 80% and 72% respectively in favour of the Union Jack and 74% and 66% respectively in favour of no design change. As such, this totally blows out of the water any suggestion that young people are the primary opponents to the current official flag.
To quote Harold Scruby, the founder of ‘Ausflag’, “our new flag must be unambiguously and inclusively Australian, representing all of us equally”. This is totally ridiculous. In addition to already being completely unique in the world – and thus, “unambiguously Australian” – making the flag “representative of all of us equally” would be impossible; Australian society is composed of far too many complex cultures and peoples for this to be anywhere near feasible, not to mention issues with the ambiguity of the word “representative”. For instance, does this mean proportionally representative, in which case, would there be yet more debates ten or twenty years down the track to change the flag as the composition of Australia’s population changes?
There is also the matter of those people that don’t want to change the flag in the first place – they, by definition, would not be equally represented by a new flag. Lowitja O’Donoghue, meanwhile, the 1984 Australian of the Year, has said that the current design “symbolises dispossession and oppression…[and] represents a monoculture and intolerance”. However, this would seem completely at odds with the views of many other Indigenous peoples, such as Ken Wyatt, the first Aboriginal person elected to the House of Representatives, who has said he would not support any move to change the flag as Aboriginal peoples are already represented on the flag (as the stars of the Southern Cross are highly significant in Dreamtime folklore). Furthermore, it is unreasonable to expect the vast majority of society to fundamentally alter their culture and the symbols of that culture (eg: the flag) in the name of placating minority groups and promoting multiculturalism. To do so would be little more than a further extension of the blight on contemporary Western civilisation that is extreme political correctness. This is especially so given the lengths the government and the wider community goes to in assisting minority groups like immigrants to better integrate into mainstream Australian society.
The presumptive statement by Professor McGorry that Australia has not achieved “independent adulthood” is also completely incorrect. Ever since the Australia Act (1986), Australia’s political and legal system has had total sovereignty over our domestic affairs (notwithstanding ratified international treaties). Therefore, we have already achieved this “independent adulthood” and the claim that we have not is an insult to both the people of Australia and to the Australian nation itself. While it can be legitimately conceded that the conventions of flag design protocol do dictate that having the Union Jack in the top-left corner is symbolic of some sort of a subordinate status, most Australians are not exactly familiar with the intricacies of flag design protocol; therefore, the more important symbolism is the recognition of our historical origins as a British colony and as a country governed by a (partly) Westminster-style parliamentary democracy.
Finally, I am all for healthy debate on topics like this, but there is such a thing as inappropriate timing. The groups like ‘Ausflag’ to bring up this debate on days like Australia Day and, even worse, on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day – such as Ray Martin’s inflammatory 60 Minutes segment on ANZAC Day in 2010 – is simply disrespectful, and made worse by their admitting to deliberately going out of their way to announce their petition (referred to above) actually on Australia Day.
Pandering to this vocal minority by changing the Australian flag would be a travesty that not only ignores our national heritage, but would in fact dishonour it. The lack of willingness by the Parliament to change the flag demonstrates not the outdated views of entrenched elites out of touch with the masses, but rather is reflective of the national pride and respect for our nation’s history that the overwhelming majority of Australians feel.