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Don't get carried away by dreams of a new flag

By Barry Cohen - posted Thursday, 20 May 2010

Australians are generally able to discuss issues of national importance without getting their knickers in a knot. We hold robust opinions but are usually able to discuss them calmly. We do, however, occasionally get hot under the collar when symbolic issues such as the republic, the anthem and the flag are debated.

In the case of the latter, this was evident on Anzac Day, when the 60 Minutes program corralled a group of zealots to put the case for and against changing the flag.

60 Minutes naughtily began the program with a segment on the debate about population growth and immigration. It decided to "stir the possum" by opening with a Pauline Hanson sound-alike expressing strong views on "foreigners". The segment ignored the fact those calling for a slower growth rate had stressed this was not a debate about who came to Australia but how many.


That set the tone for the flag debate. The host was Ray Martin, a new flag enthusiast, along with the shy and retiring former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons. In the opposite corner was John Vaughan, who runs the self-styled National Flag Association. It was not the most edifying of debates.

Martin opened by telling us that when "word got out that 60 Minutes was reopening the flag debate, we were inundated with hate mail". What a surprise! Martin continued: "This mob is hot and bothered about a different kind of independence, about changing the flag. It's a high-octane issue that's been dividing us since 1901."

Among the inspired interjections were: "Leave our flag alone", "We hate wogs" and "Go to buggery England, we want our own flag". The last was contributed by a former Hawke government minister, although he was not identified as such. Not his finest hour.

What is it that gets up so many noses at the sight and smell of anything British? I can hate the Poms, too, but only when the Ashes are at stake. Undoubtedly it is the Union Jack that is the chief irritant to the "new flaggers", but a very large number of Australians, of British heritage, or English if you prefer, not only do not find it offensive but cherish the connection with their antecedents.

Whenever this debate erupts, the cry goes up: "Our fathers fought and died under this flag." Not true. Some did, most didn't.

The official flag handbook details its history. "Shortly before the first parliament it was decided to hold a worldwide competition to obtain designs for two Australian flags, one for official and naval purposes and the other for the Merchant Navy service. The competition was conducted in conjunction with a newspaper, The Review of Reviews. On [September 3,] 1901, the designs were displayed in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Over 30,000 designs were submitted and five were selected of equal merit."


Although none of the winning flags was adopted, all were similar to the final design. The Commonwealth Blue Ensign was not approved until the passage of the Flags Act 1953. In the previous 50 years or so, the Blue Ensign, the Red Ensign and the Union Jack had been flown as the national flag. At the Parliament House opening in 1927, the house was swathed in the Red Ensigns and Union Jacks.

The passage of the Flags Act in no way deterred the "new flaggers". In 1983 the ubiquitous Harold Scruby, backed by The Bulletin, held a competition that attracted 25,000 entries. The winner won $58,000 but the consensus was that the entries varied from ordinary to awful.

There was a less exuberant response when the question of a national anthem was raised in the 1972 election campaign. Gough Whitlam promised, "When Labor is elected Australia will have its own national anthem." Billy McMahon responded, "When the Coalition is returned Australia will have two national anthems." Gough's riposte was: "Where's the music coming from?"

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First published in The Australian on May 18, 2010.

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About the Author

Barry Cohen was Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Environment in the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1987. He currently runs an animal sanctuary in Calga, NSW.

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