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Ray Martin is right

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 1 February 2010

So that’s it then is it? An eminent Australian calls for a debate on perhaps the most important of our national symbols, there is a flurry of commentary and you get knocked over in the rush of politicians running a million miles from any idea that changing the flag has any merit whatsoever, and then the media caravan moves on.

A pity because Ray Martin is right. To have a Union Jack on the Australian flag in the 21st century is simply ridiculous. So much for all the rhetoric about what a confident nation we are these days. If we were, we would have symbols which represented that confidence and independence.

There is simply no good argument for Australia maintaining a flag which excludes Indigenous Australians, and which symbolises that period in our post colonial history when England was the “mother country” and we were her loyal servants, sending our youngest and finest off to war to support the British campaigns in the slaughterhouses of Gallipoli and France.


The knee jerk response to suggestions that Australia should adopt a flag that represents who we are today is that the current flag is steeped in the blood of sacrifice. Victoria’s Premier John Brumby is running this specious argument. His forbears fought under the Australian flag. "As is the case with many Australians, my father and grandfather served our armed forces under our flag," he was quoted as saying this week. Yes, and so did two great uncles of mine, but that was then, and the Australia they lived in was very different to the one that we live in today.

And besides, there are millions of Canadians whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents fought in two world wars under a flag that was abolished in the early 1960s and replaced with the distinctive read and white “maple leaf flag”. You do not fight for a piece of cloth, but for freedom and liberty.

While arguments for a new Australian flag based around the need to ensure our national symbols are relevant and reflective of the values we hold dear are important, the most substantial argument relates to justice and equality.

It is incontrovertible to say that European Australia was built on bloodshed and a failure to respect the dignity and humanity of this land’s original inhabitants. We have as a society gone some way to recognising this fact through the High Court’s famous 1992 Mabo judgment that recognised the title in land held by Indigenous Australians at the time of European settlement. And Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008 was another milestone in the reconciliation journey between European and Indigenous Australia.

But there is still much to be done in this quest. Importantly, none of our national symbols, be it the Constitution, the office of Head of State, or the flag, provide any form of formal recognition of the original inhabitants of this land. This is an area where Australia lags behind other countries such as South Africa and Canada, for example.

Designing a new flag provides an opportunity to ensure that Australia tells the world and its own people that it formally recognises that the history of this country did not begin with the hoisting of a Union Jack in the 18th century, but that the Indigenous owners of Australia represent a link between the ancient and the modern.


Given past form, it is a pathetic reality that Ray Martin’s sensible call for a debate on a new flag will fall on deaf ears in Canberra. The last political figure of consequence to articulate the idea of a new flag was Paul Keating. But his successors in the ALP today are, as we saw last week with Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard hosing down the idea of a republic referendum, are timid bunch. And the Liberals love to drape themselves in the Union Jack.

Meanwhile we are stuck with a flag that is a statement about exclusion.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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