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Wrapped in the flag.

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Tuesday 4 July 2006

Elizabeth Kwan, senior research officer, Department of the Senate


Wrapped in the flag

Since the mid-1960s, the national flag has become much more visible across Australia. Where once it flew over public buildings only on special days, it now flies every day and even at night. In recent times some Australians have begun wearing the flag, from Gallipoli backpackers on Anzac Day, to rioters at Cronulla, and to those celebrating Australia Day. Many people are wondering why. Are these Australians making a patriotic statement? Or, as some commentators said of the Cronulla rioters, a racial statement? Or is the face-painting, flag-wearing exhibitionism simply a bit of fun - an attempt to catch the eyes of TV camera crews?

Reading the symbolism of these and earlier flag events is not a simple matter, especially given the ambiguity, confusion and myth-making which have shaped the history of national flags in Australia. Two myths have become especially persistent: first, that the current flag has been the national flag since 1901; and second, that Australians fought and died for it.

The national flag before and after federation was the Union flag, known as the Union Jack. That flag took precedence over its two Australian ensigns: blue for naval and government ships and red for merchant ships. At the opening of Australia's Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, the Union Jack had the place of honour. Even in 1951, when Australians celebrated fifty years of federation, the Union Jack retained that place. The prime minister of the time, Robert Menzies, reflecting on the emergence of the Australian nation during those years, could still remark: '...there has never been argument about whether we are British or not. We are British.' Only after Queen Elizabeth II gave her assent early in 1954 to the Flags Act did the Australian blue ensign become the national flag and take precedence over the Union Jack. Even our prime minister, John Howard, that stalwart promoter of the flag, recognised its ambiguous history: 'It is true', he said in 2001, 'that it took a long time before there was unambiguous acceptance of the flag[,] chosen as one central undeniable emblem of Australia.'

As to flags in war, while both the red and the blue ensigns were used in World War I, as well as the Union Jack, that flag again took precedence. In peacetime, it covered the coffin in 1931 of Sir John Monash, Australia's most famous general, and in the following year, that of 'Australia's greatest front-line soldier', Bert Jacka. Only during World War II did Australians prompt their government to modify that convention, allowing a serviceman's next of kin to request an Australian flag instead of, or as well as, the Union Jack. Given that history, we shouldn't be surprised that the ensigns for Australia's navy and air force were those of the British navy and air force. Although Australian governments expected that their navy, founded in 1911, and their air force, founded in 1921, would have their own ensigns, that was not possible until 1949 for the air force, and 1967 for the navy.

Australians, so used to the Union Jack as their national flag, and to the red ensign if they flew an Australian flag (since the blue ensign for so long was regarded as the government flag), gradually came to accept the blue ensign after 1954. But curiously, by the time the blue ensign had gained widespread recognition as the national flag in the 1980s, a growing percentage of Australians began questioning its design. How could it be Australia's flag when it featured the British flag in the place of honour? Competitions by one group to find a new design and campaigns by another group to preserve the current design made the flag a sensitive issue in the struggle between the two major political parties in the 1990s. Since 1996 the federal government has discouraged discussion of a new flag among the 52 per cent of Australians who wanted one. It has promoted the current flag in private as well as public schools, requiring all those who accept federal funds to fly the flag. That this occurred while Australia was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq has made the government's task easier, though not without challenge. Part of that challenge renewed the call for a truly Australian flag.

Answers to the questions posed by those who wrap themselves in the Australian flag call for thought not emotion if we are to understand the continuing evolution of that flag.


Elizabeth Kwan  

Historian, Author Senior Researcher - Parliament House, Canberra