By John Blaxland, Australian National University
AS we know, there’s a divide between those who would support a new Australian flag and those who believe the current flag is fine. And even those who declare an interest in a new flag are divided on what that design should be. I’ve designed a flag that, I believe, takes into account the many necessary cultural and historical factors – and that may help us mature as a nation.
But why is this all coming to the fore again?
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key recently proposed replacing New Zealand’s flag with a more distinctive national flag and Kiwis will vote on whether to do so in a referendum in the next parliamentary term.
Since then, talkback host Tom Eliott – among others – has come out defending the current Australian flag with its Union Jack.
Fighting for the Union Jack?
Few realise the overwhelming majority of the 102,000 Australians who fought and died for the British Empire did so under the Union Jack, not the current Australian flag – as did the New Zealanders who died in the world wars. Key understands this and is boldly setting New Zealand on a path which, in my view, Australia should follow.
Australia should ensure its flag is distinct, inclusive and symbolic of the nation’s maturity and independence.
It was not until the Flag Act became law in 1954 that Australia’s blue ensign became the national flag. Prior to that, Australians were more familiar with the red ensign. This was the civil ensign and was recognised as the unofficial Australian flag after Federation.
The blue ensign existed but was in limited circulation. At the opening of Parliament House in 1927 the flags flown were the Union Jack and the red ensign – not the blue one we currently take to be our flag.
As the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, the current Australian flag is the British flag on a starry night. The dominant top left quadrant belongs to the flag of another nation, making Australia symbolically subordinate to Britain. That is an anachronism.
This anachronism has been building in the years since the second world war as Australia’s identity increasingly separated from Britain.
Even Australia’s “strategic cousins”, the Canadians, dropped the Union Jack from the dominant top left quadrant of its flag in 1965 while remaining a federal bi-cameral constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the head of state.
A flag that matches our identity
Post-war migration from war-torn Europe helped further differentiate Australia from Britain.
In the meantime, Britain favoured trade with its European neighbours at the expense of its imperial offshoots. Yet Australia retained the blue ensign as the nation’s flag, even though on so many levels the anachronism of the flag’s arrangement led to a discordance with Australia’s increasingly independent, self-confident and multicultural identity.
Today many are uncomfortable flying it, seeing it as a symbol of division and disunity associated with reaction and fringe politics.
Finding a winning compromise
Now, more than two centuries after the first British colonists arrived, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is seeking to acknowledge in our constitution Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – a profoundly important step for all of our citizens.
Progress towards a new flag has been delayed in part by the lack of an evocative design that would capture the imagination.
There are several touchstone symbols that can either attract or repel supporters to alternative flag designs.
First is the Union Jack. To some no flag will be acceptable if this is removed, yet to others this is exactly the most repellent feature. Some kind of accommodation is necessary on this point.
Second is the uniquely Australian configuration of the Southern Cross – with its oft-tatooed four seven-pointed stars and one five-pointed star.
Third is the seven-pointed federation star – a key symbol of Australia as an independent state.
Then there are the two Indigenous flags, the Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag, representing Australia’s first peoples.
Then there is the gold and green – alluding to the colour of Ireland.
Designs that have not addressed these touchstones have failed to spark the imagination.
A better design?
We can do better. As mentioned at the outset, I have designed a flag (which you can see at the top of this article) that fosters recognition and reconciliation while incorporating aspects of the touchstones.
Placing the black, red and yellow colours from the Aboriginal flag at the leading edge gives due recognition to the original inhabitants and the land itself. The red band, shaped as a boomerang, also symbolises local ingenuity and adaptation and, along with the dots, pays homage to Indigenous artistry.
A seven-pointed star symbolic of the federation, with its six original states and the Commonwealth, includes 250 dots representing the languages of Indigenous people and post-1788 migrants – all together as one in the dominant top-left quadrant, symbolising the authority of the people of Australia, within an inclusive federation.
The red boomerang, in turn, abuts against a band of white: “girt” by sea much like waves on a beach along the country’s famous shoreline. The white abuts the blue which, together with the red and white bands, becomes a sliver of the Union Jack, symbolising recognition of the British-derived national institutions, culture and language that are the foundations of modern Australia.
The stars of the southern cross are green and gold, Australia’s national colours, symbolising a modern, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive Australia.
Scanning left to right, one sees a country informed by its history – initially Aboriginal, then British, then distinctly independent and multicultural. Everyone is included in the federation and this rendition portrays us as all in this together, as a symbol of recognition, reconciliation and inclusiveness.
In Australia we must choose a design or be stuck with a faintly embarrassing anachronism. It’s time for an inclusive flag symbolising reconciliation.
What’s your view on the Australian flag? Have your say below, or visit www.facebook.com/ReconciliationFlagForAustralia
John Blaxland is a sixth-generation Australian of British descent. He served for 28 years in the Australian Army and is the author of ‘The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard’ (Cambridge University Press, 2014)