August 29

Flag desecration

On  27 March, 2006, the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop  introduced into the House of Representatives  a private members bill, the Protection of the Australian National Flag (Desecration of the Flag) Bill, 2006. The bill would make  an offence punishable by a six-month jail term or a fine of up to $11,000 "to wilfully destroy or otherwise mutilate the flag in circumstances where a reasonable person would infer that the destruction or mutilation is intended publicly to express contempt or disrespect of the flag or the Australian nation".

I suggested in this column on 29 March 2006 that most Australians would support this. The opposition is more about tactics, and whether this will produce martyrs.  I don’t think many Australians will have any sympathy with someone who desecrates the flag and is subsequently punished to meet the members.Now a teenager who set fire to the flag stolen from The Returned & Services League of Australia, the RSL, has been ordered by a Sydney magistrate to face the members of the branch. On the night of the disturbances at Cronulla, 11 December, 2005 , the youth took one flag from the front window of  on RSL Club at Brighton, and another from the roof. He set one alight and then handed the flags to a group of males who dragged them along Bay Street, urinating and spitting on them. Another offender had been earlier gaoled for three months.

The general reaction in the letters columns and on talkback was outrage at the leniency of the magistrate’s decision. It was pointed out that the charge related to the theft and destruction of property, not desecration of the flag.  Civil libertarians tend to argue against creating an  offence of desecration. They say burning the flag is an exercise in freedom of speech. The US Supreme Court takes this line, which would surprise those who drafted their constitution. The Prime Minister is opposed to the creation of the offence on pragmatic grounds. He probably fears that this would encourage flag desecration for publicity purposes.In any event , it is appalling that any Australian could so insult the national symbol.



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