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Thursday, 4 October 1984
Page: 1245


Senator MacGIBBON —In leading the debate in support of Senator Durack's Bill amending the Flags Act 1953, I commence by outlining the purposes of the Bill. The purposes are two-fold. First of all, it is to prevent any change to the national flag at the whim of the government of the day and, secondly, it is to provide a mechanism for change by a majority vote of the people of Australia. The effects of the amendment to the Act will be to retain the present flag for Australia and provide a means for change by popular mandate when that need is apparent.

The current legislation covering the flag used as the Australian national ensign is embodied in the Flags Act 1953. Curiously, it is the only illuminated or coloured piece of legislation on our statute books because it has incorporated into it the design of the Australian national flag and the Australian Red Ensign. The defect in that legislation is that it permits change to be made by the government of the day. That should not be a problem, except that at present we have a Government that has the declared intention of taking Australia down a republican path. I will come back to that in a moment. I deal first of all with a specific part of the Act. Section 5 of the Act states:

The Governor-General may, by Proclamation, appoint such other flags and ensigns of Australia as he thinks fit.

In practical terms, that means that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, through the Executive Council, can instruct the Governor-General as to what flag they wish to be used as the Australian national ensign without recourse in any way at all to the views and wishes of the people of Australia. The Bill proposed by Senator Durack adds a second part to section 5 of the Flags Act, which states:

Nothing in sub-section (1) empowers the Governor-General to make regulations appointing a flag or ensign other than the Australian National Flag as the standard for the Commonwealth of Australia, the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia or the Australian nation.

Part (2) of that clause states:

Every Proclamation in force under section 5 of the Principal Act immediately before the commencement of this Act continues to have the force and effect that it had at that time but may be repealed by regulations under section 5 of the Principal Act as amended by this Act.

Senator Durack's Bill then goes into the details of how the change shall take place. It will insert a new section at the end of the Act, clause 9 of the Bill, which states:

The Australian National Flag declared by section 3 shall not be altered except in accordance with a proposal to alter that flag that has been-

(a) submitted in each State and Territory to the electors qualified to vote for the election of members of the House of Representatives; and

(b) approved-

(i) in a majority of the States by a majority of the electors voting; and

(ii) by a majority of all the electors voting.

'(2) In this section, 'Territory' means any Territory referred to in section 122 of the Constitution in respect of which there is in force a law allowing its representation in the House of Representatives.'.

So the Bill sets out clearly to do the two things that I outlined at the start- to prevent any capricious change taking place to our national ensign and, secondly, providing that that change takes place as a result of a popular vote. Why is there a need for this sort of legislation? As I said a few moments ago, normally there would never be any need to contemplate changing or amending the legislation in this way. Countries do not change their flags very often. It is very rare in the life of a nation for it to change its flag. Unless the whole system of that nation has been overthrown by a coup and a different system of government has been introduced, it simply does not change its flag. If we look at the changes which have taken place this century in the established and stable nations of the world we will see that there have been very few. The problem we have in Australia is that the Australian Labor Party has an open, avowed intention to create a republican Australia. It has made it quite clear that the flag is one of the things it wishes to change. Most importantly, the Government wishes to change it by the bicentenary in 1988. The Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation program on 26 January 1984, in a discussion on republicanism, said:

I believe that this is something that ought to and will happen.

We do not have to move out of this chamber to refer to what the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) has said. He speaks on every topic, but in the Age newspaper of 7 September 1981, on the subject of the flag, he said:

Maybe the solution is for us to get on with the task of choosing for ourselves before 1988, a new, genuinely homegrown flag of which we really can, for one, be proud.

There was the usual grammatical mix-up that the Attorney-General usually uses with words, but I think his intent is quite clear despite his grammatical inadequacies on this matter. Part of the tactics of change that the Labor Party is following here is, first of all, to create dissent by promoting discussion and debate about the flag through Ausflag and bodies such as that and, secondly, to very quietly and covertly dismantle the practices, the customs and the symbols that the Australian society has. We have gone a long way down that path already.

Since Mr Hawke came into power we have seen the portrait of the Queen as the head of the Commonwealth removed from Australian Government buildings and the substitution of the smiling visage of Mr Hawke. We had the very well popularised change to the national anthem. The change was made without any forewarning, let alone any discussion, with the Australian community. Changes have been made to the Australian Citizenship Act, which legislation has not yet gone through the Senate. There has been the change to the oath of allegiance and the English language requirement. There has been the abandonment of the status of British subject and changes of that nature. We have seen the cessation of the granting of imperial honours. We have seen the great disturbance in the Australian defence forces coming from the review of military decorations which we have traditionally awarded. We have seen the recent changes in the letters patent relating to the Governor-General and the obfuscation by the Government of the point that despite what it might say about its interpretation of the letters patent the Governor-General still is the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force.

Only a few nights ago when we discussed in this chamber the estimates for the Department of Foreign Affairs we learned that the American-Australian Association, which received a grant of $100,000 last year, is no longer funded by the Hawke socialist Government. The Australia-Britain Society, which last year had a grant of $150,000, is no longer funded. We find that cultural relationships with Vietnam are benefiting to the tune of $50,000 this year. We find that cultural relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are benefiting to the extent of $75,000 this year. Various peace and disarmament activities around the world will receive a contribution of $267,000 from the Australian taxpayer, no doubt matching dollar for dollar what the Soviets are putting into those organisations on the international forum. The consequence of all this is that every politician in this Parliament is aware that people are concerned about the preservation of the flag. All politicians, whatever their party affiliations, are conscious of the great concern that the community manifested over the high-handed way in which the national anthem was changed. They are still conscious of the anger that is out there in the electorate at the way it was done.

Coincidentally to Senator Durack bringing in this Bill, in the earlier part of this year, in April, I wrote to every newspaper in Queensland asking people to write to me with their views on the Australian flag. I was scrupulously careful not to foreshadow a preference one way or the other and I did not expect to receive much of a response. I thought that if I received 500 to 600 replies I would have done very well, from a response point of view. I was involved in various surveys in my professional life before I became a member of the Senate. The response I received was absolutely staggering. Over 4,000 people took the time to write to me. Of those 4,000 only 50-odd were form letters of a roneoed type or coming from the one source. I received over 1,000 telephone calls. Over 5,000 people from all over Queensland and around Australia took the trouble to communicate with me. They came from every age group. They came from locally born people and from overseas born people. Reading the letters was very interesting because they were not one paragraph letters saying 'Keep the flag' or 'Change the flag'. Most people wrote highly personal, two or three page letters expressing their views in great detail to me. A lot of effort went into this. When it was all done the statistics showed that over 90 per cent of those who contacted me wanted to retain the Australian flag the way it is. There is no way the intensity of those feelings could be misinterpreted.

I recognise very well all the statistical imperfections of a survey of that type. I do not quote it with a very high degree of confidence in the statistical sense. Having been involved in teaching statistics at a graduate level I know that one can attach some degree of significance to a sample of that size. That impression is confirmed by all the surveys that have been carried out in Australia. The most recent of which I am aware showed that 60 per cent of the Australian community across this nation wished to retain the ensign that we have at present. A majority of 66 per cent of the community is no knife-edge majority . It astonishes me in the face of that expression of public support for the ensign that anyone could contemplate changing it. It is just simply not a tenable proposition. I have had conversations with my Labor colleagues on the other side of this chamber and the other House-all the saner members of the Labor Party; those in touch with what is going on in the community outside-and they recognise the point that it would be the height of folly for them to get involved in changing the flag given community attitudes at present.

I wish to take the time of the Senate to review briefly the arguments that are posed for change, because I have taken a bit of interest in this in the light of this survey experience. The first point is that no common design is proposed by those people who wish for a change. A whole range of designs have been suggested in the community and there is very little agreement as to what design the new flag should take. There are also widespread views as to what is wrong with the present flag, and there is certainly no common view.

I wish to deal with three or four points that are most commonly brought up by critics of the present design. One of the most common things that people say is that many Australians do not know what the flag stands for. If they do not know that, the way to correct it is through a public education campaign. After all, if we can spend $750,000 of the taxpayers' money this year on an infertile television advertising campaign about orchestras and accord in order to sell the Government's wages pact with the unions, we can certainly spend some money on educating the children and the adults of this country on what the Australian flag stands for, its historical association and how it came to be accepted as the national symbol.

The second point raised by critics is that people abroad do not recognise the Australian flag. It is hard to take that criticism seriously because it is so absurd. How many Australians would know the flag of Kiribati, which is one of our closest neighbours in the Pacific? Would the people of Kiribati be prepared to change their flag because no one in Australia recognised which country it belonged to? That argument is nonsense.

The third criticism in support of changing the flag is that Canada changed its flag. Anyone who was in Canada in the late 1950s and early 1960s and saw the great unrest in the Canadian community between the French Canadians in the province of Quebec, particularly around Montreal, and the rest of Canada would understand very well why the Government of the day tried to bridge that gap to bring those people together by changing the Canadian national emblem. Having done that, despite what some of the people writing to the papers might say, it has not been terribly successful. There is still much opposition in Canada to the present maple leaf design. The provinces of Manitoba and Ontario have reintroduced the Union Jack on their provincial flags. Of course, Newfoundland and British Columbia never deleted the Union Jack from their provincial flags.

Another design that is frequently suggested is the Eureka flag. The Eureka flag was a single issue flag, along with the Murray River flag and the Australian transportation flag. It really has no national significance that merits its preference over the present design. I suppose the most common objection of all relates to the inclusion of the Union Jack in the upper left quadrant of the ensign. That Union Jack represents our historical foundings as a British colony. It does not represent any servile association with Britain today; it just represents a historical fact on precisely the same basis as it does on the Hawaiian flag. Goodness me, one would not meet a more vigorously independent nationalistic group in any of the States of the United States of America, yet the Hawaiians are quite happy to retain the Union Jack in their flag purely because of its historical association. It is something we live with. It is part of our history.

The final criticism that is made of the present flag is that it does not represent anything to the migrants who come to this country. In my experience, that is not an argument that can be sustained. The argument rather is that migrants come to the country to be Australians. They do not come here to be Czechs, Spaniards, Indonesians or Singaporeans in exile; they come here to be Australians. While a percentage of those people would like to see a different flag, in my experience, the majority of them are quite happy to have the flag that is presently the national ensign for Australia.

Society needs to be able to change because it is a living, growing, dynamic thing, and it must have the ability to change in a peaceful and reasoned way. At the same time, there has to be something that binds a community together and some of the symbols of government and some symbols of the established practices of that society are the glue that keeps the community together. They give the stability to that community that it needs in time of stress. A flag is a very central part of the symbol of being a nation. I am not being jingoistic about this. It is not a matter of saying, 'My country, right or wrong', or anything like that; it is a matter of having a stabilising element in the community, something that is not changing from day to day.

If we look at the United States and the way its people fly their flag outside their homes, in schools and in all their government institutions, we realise that Australia is a very faceless country with respect to any national expression. I think we are the poorer for it. Our country has an open policy on migration. We take people in from all over the world, and that is as it should be, but we have in a pleasant way to unite them as Australians. We have no future as a country of 1,000 different social or ethnic groupings, and in that system the flag plays a very important part.

The Australian flag has a great deal of significance to the majority of Australians and all of us have feelings of support and admiration for it. I have always admired it. I think it is a beautiful design. About 12 months ago in September last year I was privileged to be at Newport for one of the days of the America's Cup races. On the day I was there Australia was down 3-1 and the waitresses in the motel and the commentators on the radio were saying: 'Well, this is the last day of the America's Cup because we will win it today and the Australian challenge will fail. It will be 4-1 by sunset'. History did not quite work out that way because on that day we finished up a score of 3-2 and we won 4 -3 at the end of the rubber. As we sailed into Newport harbour, and there would have been thousands of Australians following the race that day, the biggest Australian flag I have ever seen in my life-it must have been well over 30 or 40 feet in length-was flying on the mast of a ship at the quay at Newport. That sight at the end of the day was of such magnificence that I do not think there was one Australian who was not extremely proud to be an Australian and to have a symbol like that flag representing him.

This Bill provides that the flag shall stay as it is and that it cannot be changed on any ideological whim by a government of the day without recourse to the people of Australia. It provides the mechanism by which the views of the people of Australia can be sought. It does not deny them the right to seek to change the flag but it is done in a way that will preserve a very important institution in a position of stability within this society.