“Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart,” supposedly said Winston Churchill. “Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”
Today it’s common to hear that young Australians aren’t interested in politics. This coincides with a perceived weariness toward democracy not just in Australia but supposedly increasing across the Western world.
Certainly, the unique benefits of Australia’s formal institutions, from the rule of law to parliamentary democracy, don’t always invite tender reflection among a young population charging ahead with unprecedented affluence and opportunities. Promoting national icons like the Australian Flag, therefore, has its obvious hurdles.
Designed by public competition in 1901, around 33,000 entrants answered Prime Minister Edmund Barton’s advertisement for a National Flag in the Government Gazette. A diverse cast of five, which even included a schoolboy, an architect and an 18-year old female artist, emerged as combined winners due to their virtually identical designs. Since 1901the Flag has endured as Australia’s peak national symbol – from the war-ravaged Western Front to the tranquillity of schoolyards, cultural ceremonies and sporting events across the country.
In some quarters there’s a strong desire to alter the Flag but it enjoys overwhelming public enthusiasm. Despite the perceived apathy toward civic life, there are a number of reasons to believe the next generation of Australians share this enthusiasm.
Firstly, the Flag has obvious appeal on Australia Day, where young Australians celebrate national achievement in ways important to them. At national and international sporting events we also see the Flag deployed in celebratory display. While the cut and thrust of a sporting arena doesn’t always invite national pause or deep reflection these moments show, in a broad sense, young Australians enthusiastic about their country and enjoying their freedom.
In other ways a healthy patriotism among young Australians is not, in the words of former Governor General Paul Hasluck, “a showy, crackling, flamboyant bit of display. It is something quiet and deep inside ourselves.” The affection to country surrounding the Flag can be a much more subtle patriotic exercise.
For example, when I was visiting family in Papua New Guinea a few years ago it was pleasing to see the flight packed with fellow young Australians spending part of their summer hiking the Kokoda Track. On the other side of the world, in places like Gallipoli and France, we see other young Australians tracing similar steps in places where Australia’s national character was formed.
Australia’s defence men and women also fly the Flag while undertaking expeditionary duties overseas, from the remote hills of central Asia to the islands of the South Pacific. Many of these servicemen and women are core constituents of Australia’s next generation. The average age in the Army, for example, is 25.
As increasing numbers of young Australians travel and find work overseas an attachment and sentiment for Australia will grow. As Churchill’s words reflect, experience builds appreciation, and having worked and lived in the poorer parts of the region I can firmly say this has been my experience.
Australians of all backgrounds have created a history to be proud of. The Flag is a symbolic recognition of this and, I suspect, will continue to find broad reception with younger Australians in generations to come.
Published at Online Opinion