This article also appears on the Spectator’s Flat White blog.
Each year, Australia’s National Flag Day is celebrated on 3 September. The date commemorates when the Flag was first flown in 1901 at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne – Australia’s then de facto capital.
At the time Edmund Barton was Australia’s Prime Minister. We’ve had 29 leaders since Barton, and our population has grown from 3 to 24.6 million, which is testament to successfully assimilating and integrating generations of new migrants from all corners. We’ve established a new capital city in Canberra. And many Australians have sacrificed so much in two world wars and other global conflicts beyond our borders.
Clearly, our country has changed significantly since Federation. There were certainly no smart phones, Uber or Google, let alone the comforts we enjoy today. But we’ve always had our National Flag as a hovering symbol of continuity, tradition and genuine unity.
Recently relocating to New Zealand I’ve found it interesting to learn more about New Zealand’s unsuccessful referendum to select a new national flag. Indeed, similar proposals have been put forward in various forms in Australia. But none have gained any serious momentum beyond intellectual support.
One of the key criticisms that kick-started the debate in New Zealand was their flag’s virtual lack of distinction – with its Union Jack and Southern Cross – to Australia’s. In fact, the flags are so alike that Bob Hawke, when visiting Canada in the mid-1980s, was supposedly greeted with a raised Kiwi flag and hundreds of miniature versions of New Zealand’s chief national symbol.
Our Kiwi neighbours initially looked at five designs but shortlisted to a choice between their current flag and a ‘black, white and blue silver fern’. In 2016, by 57 to 43 percent, our neighbours decided to turn down the change. New Zealanders cite a range of reasons for this failure – the confusing two-step process put in place by conservative prime minister John Key to the seemingly amateur nature of the alternatives proposed. But if you solely relied on headlines, or media commentary as a barometer for public opinion, it was near-certain that New Zealanders would opt for change and eagerly depart from a symbol of its colonial history. The question was not ‘if’ but ‘what’ the new flag would look like.
Back home in Australia, this impulse to dispose of national symbols is not always sinister but is invariably performed with strong degrees of ignorance or a lack of appreciation for what we’ve created. One often hears, for example, that the Australian Flag “reflects the country we once were, not the nation we have become today.” Barton’s Immigration Restriction Act – legislated in the same year as the Flag was raised at the Royal Exhibition Building – and our ‘image’ in Asia and the general treatment of Indigenous Australians, are cited as examples of a past we shouldn’t celebrate too strongly and a reason we should extinguish the Flag.
Yet these criticisms are misguided for three reasons. The first is that Barton, or at least the events around him, proved much less provincial than what some might assume. In 1905 he received Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun for mediating a solution as part of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. Japanese officers, incredibly, paraded in front of 40,000 spectators at Centennial Park, with the Sydney Morning Herald writing that the northern visitors were “not strangers, but allies and friends.” As the late Geoffrey Bolton observed of Barton’s Japanese accolade, “It was a curious distinction for the architect of the White Australia policy.”
This small example is not a defence of the Immigration Restriction Act. But it does show that Australia’s history, in real terms, is much more sophisticated than the monocultural production it has been made out to be. There are literally countless examples, from the pre-federation Gold Rush to the Colombo Plan, where we have proactively engaged in Asia despite the Union Jack provoking supposed confusion with northern neighbours.
The second point is that, far from exclusionary, the Flag has symbolic meaning in Indigenous culture. The South Cross, for example, has significant status in Aboriginal mythology as the legend of Mululu of the Kanda tribe.
The third point to make is that our Flag actually emerged not from a select committee or a design panel but from everyday Australians. In 1901, around 33,000 entrants answered Barton’s advertisement for a National Flag in the Government Gazette. This is a stunning level of public participation that we would not come near today. 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. It is a great story that is often lost in the calls for change.
I sense the Australian National Flag, despite the odd calls for change, will have a bright future. All Australians, but young Australians in particular, are not only enthusiastic about the Flag but other national institutions like the Crown. They serve as a neat reminder that, in a changing world, we still find attachment to decent unifying symbols that we can be proud of. Moments like National Flag Day serve not only as an opportunity to rediscover unique elements of our past but as a solid reminder of these ideals in the years to come.