September 6

Flag, The Australian: Our Heritage


Australian National Flag Association Parliament House

Hobart 3 September, 2009

David Flint  

Barry Humphries writes that when he was a boy he was much attached to his books. He had built up quite a collection over the years.On one occasion he was away for some weeks on some school matter. When he came back home he found that all of his books had gone. All of them.He asked his mother where they were. She said that she had given them away. When he remonstrated, she said:  “But you had read them all”Mrs Humphries clearly did not appreciate the value of the books, at least to young Barry.When I was a boy, two of the leading Sydney newspapers and the Lord Mayor campaigned to pull down what they described as a “Victorian wedding cake,” that wonderful edifice next to the Town Hall, since restored by a Malaysian company, the Queen Victoria Building. 

They wanted to replace it with a civic square,  a car park and shops.  The campaign was strong but good sense eventually prevailed. And yet over the next few years much of Sydney disappeared.  Melbourne, a gracious and planned Victorian city has also lost too much of her past. What does this show?  Not only that Lord Mayors, but – and I know you will find this hard to believe -newspaper editors, too, can be wrong. It shows that those who wanted to pull down the Queen Victoria Building did not understand the value of their heritage.

Our heritage

We have an even greater heritage than our buildings. It is in the way we do things, the fundamental way we govern ourselves – if you will, our constitutional system. I mean this not in the narrow sense of the compact between the people in each of the states made in 1900. I am referring to its broader meaning. This is, as Bolingbroke once put it, that assembly of laws, customs and institutions by which the people have agreed to be governed. Our heritage also includes the precious symbol we have chosen to represent our Australian system, the Australian way – the Australian National Flag. Our Flag is not just an attractive banner. Our Flag is, by its design, unlike most of those flags which are indistinguishable tricolours or indeed bicolours.

But it is also different because it tells the story of our nation, it says much about what we are and it offers a clear guide to our future.At this point it is worth recalling that, some emerging weaknesses apart, we are an extraordinarily stable democratic country and our Flag is testament to this.  Why is that so?Why is it that we are among one of the world’s six or seven oldest continuing democracies? Why was it that in 2007, power passes peacefully form Mr Howard who conceded defeat to Mr Rudd?  There were no demonstrations in the streets, no cars with flags circling the cities with horns blaring, no violence and burnt cars as there was in the last presidential election in that most civilised city, Paris.Why are we in the top ten countries in the UN Human Development Index which measures health, wealth and education? How have we been able to contribute so much to the freedom of other countries?  Why were we one of the very few who fought from the beginning to the end in both world wars, and who lost more than most in the first World War?  How we are able to be, on a per capita basis, the world’s leading sporting nation? How are we one of the leading Nobel Prize–winning countries, again in per capita terms?Why is this so?  It is I believe to be found in the context in which we live, in the way we govern ourselves. It is our constitutional system, in the broadest of senses. It is this system which gives people the freedom and the means to fulfil their lives.Without understanding the past, we cannot appreciate the present, and we cannot plan for the  future.Life is a continuum. Edmund Burke put it well when he said “Society is …a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those yet to be born.”Our constitutional system is not something recent, and although the Federal Constitution took effect on 1 January 1901, it goes back through the inauspicious foundation of the penal colony in 1788, through that golden thread which takes us back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – the most important beneficial political event in the world in the last five half millennium – and further back to the Magna Carta of 1215. Society is indeed a partnership between the living, those who have gone before us and those yet to be born.There are two features of that foundation of the colony in 1788 about which all Australians should be aware.

First, it ensured this would be the only continent not to know slavery. This was because our founders, Governor Phillip and Lord Sydney were irrevocably opposed to it. "In a new country there will be no slavery and hence no slaves.”  (Phillip also ordered that Aborigines be treated well, and indicated that the murder of an Aborigine would be punished by hanging.) It was Britain who first found slavery contrary to the  law. Lord Mansfield decision in Somerset’s’ case (1772) that a runaway slave could not be returned to America from England – “the air of England is to pure for a slave to breathe” – was as important a cause for the War of Independence as was the  imposition of taxes to cover the costs of protecting the colonists from the French.As indeed was the containment of the white colonists to the thirteen colonies by the Great Proclamation by King George III that the remainder of the continent should be reserved for the Indian tribes. Let us not forget that it was Britain who, to her financial detriment, first effectively abolished the slave trade and later the institution of slavery itself.

The second point about the colony is that even although it was a penal colony, it was a colony under the rule of law. It was not, as Robert Hughes has wrongly informed the world, a gulag. Lord Sydney, whom too many glibly dismiss as being of no consequence, took a decision which would have a fundamental effect on the colony.  Instead of just establishing New South Wales as a military prison, he provided for a civil administration, with courts of law.

Just consider one example.  An early civil action brought by convicts against a ship captain for theft was defended on the ground that at common law felons could not sue.  The court required the captain to prove this, which was of course impossible since the records were in England.  Can Mr. Hughes give us a similar example of litigation by prisoners in a Soviet gulag?

That we were founded under those pillars, the rule of law, our oldest institution, the Crown, our Judeo Christian values, and the English  language is well represented in our Flag.Then within one generation of the founding of the penal colony there was an extraordinary development.  This was the grant by Great Britain to the Australian colonies, in the middle of the nineteenth century and initiated before the Eureka Stockade, the full panoply of parliamentary self government under the Westminster system. No other colonial power did this for her colonies. Why? Because the other European powers, with the exception of the Dutch, did not have this concept at home. And the Dutch showed no interest in granting self-government to their colonies.  This too is represented on our Flag.With British encouragement, we next decided on federation. It was federation with two unique features. It was the first and only federation of a whole continent. And it was achieved without war, rebellion, deaths, or indeed any violence. So it was, in world history, a unique and extraordinary event. As Founding Fathers Sir John Quick and Sir Robert Garren said:“Never before have a group of self-governing, practically independent communities, without external pressure or foreign complications of any kind, deliberately chosen of their own free will to put aside their provincial jealousies and come together as one people, from a simple intellectual and sentimental conviction of the folly of disunion and the advantages of nationhood. The States of America, of Switzerland, of Germany, were drawn together under the shadows of war. Even the Canadian provinces were forced to unite by the neighbourhood of a great foreign power. But the Australian Commonwealth, the fifth great Federation of the world, came into voluntary being through a deep conviction of national unity. We may well be proud of the statesmen who constructed a Constitution which whatever may be its faults and its shortcomings has proved acceptable to a large majority of the people of five great communities scattered over a continent; and proud of a people who, without the compulsion of war or the fear of conquest, have succeeded in agreeing upon the terms of a binding and indissoluble Social Compact."

Changing symbols

These are our foundations. And we honour those foundations – each and every one of them – by our great symbol, the Australian Flag. We do it as few nations do. Our flag is not just a beautiful design; every part of it tells a story, a story about our origins.  We honour the nation by flying it, as we honour those who have served the nation before. But the flag is more than that. It is our link between our past, and one to our future.Now it is not uncommon in large corporations for new management to wish to put their stamp on the body they are to manage, and to make them, as they say, relevant to the time. Accordingly they spend embarrassingly large amounts of the shareholders’ money in changing logos and sometimes even changing the name of the enterprise. This does nothing for the bottom line, but no doubt give some sort of personal satisfaction to the executives.  The public are usually irritated and good will built up over the years is endangered. Then there is the common reaction of the politician, who finding fault with some agency, changes its name. The Sydney transport system has more changes of name than Henry VIII wives.Similarly if some problem appears insoluble, the politician gives this a new name, too.A similar approach seems to have emerged in relation to bad behaviour.  If this can be given a new name, or classified, usually ending in “disorder”, the problem is not solved, but possibly neutralised. By referring to it by its initials – e.g., “SPI disorder” (spin doctored political disorder) the problem is at least being, as they say, “addressed.”All of this is of course a waste of time and money by people who one suspects are so incompetent or self obsessed – or both – they have to engage in such useless wasteful distractions.    There are those in our nation who are unsure both as about our nation’s Flag. This indicates they are unsure about our nation in relation to its place in the firmament. They want to change the history of our country, or the present or even the future. So to do this they would change the Flag.Now it is never that they have a better flag to offer. It is a visceral hatred of the present flag and the history behind that. Before the 1999 referendum, there was an exhibition for new flags sponsored by a merchant bank Turnbull and Partners. The exhibition was supported by the republican movement and a number of worthies were acknowledged.

One of the flags had a  background with these words emblazoned on it, a slogan of such vulgarity I shall not on this occasion repeat it in full. Suffice to say it read “ F*** OFF BACK TO FAGLAND”That demonstrates that a new Flag is not proposed because of love for some new flag, or that it would explain better our story, our presence and our future. The new flag movement is motivated by one desire to shred our flag. And that is based on an unworthy emotion, a hatred – a visceral hatred – of our past and thus of our Flag.

The story of our Flag

But let us return to that great saga, the story of our flag.

One of the early actions of our new federal authorities was to find the symbol for our country. On   29 April 1901, Prime Minister Edmund Barton announced the details of the Commonwealth Government’s unique competition for the design of a "federal" Australian flag. 32,823 entries are subsequently received.Just as our constitution was one of the few to be approved by the people, and for no other reason than that we saw the advantage of being one nation, so our flag comes from a popular consultation.

Then on a sparkling day in Melbourne, on 3 September, the winning design was announced. With minor changes it is still our beloved National Flag.Every part of the flag is a symbol of our origins, strength in the present and a guide to our future.

 It is as untrue to say that including the Union Jack was a condition of the competition as is the untruth that our troops did not serve under our Flag in the World Wars.And so we have the Union Jack. The crosses there recall each of the pillars which are the foundation of our country:  the rule of law and the freedom it gives us, our oldest institution, the Crown, more important for the power it denies others rather than the power it wields, our Judeo Christian principles and values, our language, and responsible government under the world’s most sophisticated and successful system, the Westminster model.And added to the Union Jack  is that great constellation,  the Southern Cross. Those four stars  remind us we are an old and continuing civilisation on the great Southern Land – that we are in terms of the motto of our oldest university, “Sidere mens eadem mutato.”  ('the stars change, the mind remains the same') Ivor Evans, a fourteen year old designer of the flag, saw with Dante that the flag is a physical poem, and that the stars of the Southern Cross stand for the four great moral virtues – Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude.And then there is the six pointed Federation Star which symbolises the decision of the people of the six states, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown. ( Later, in 1908 a seventh point was added to represent the territories.) All of this is bathed in a beautiful blue background, redolent of the blue sky in which the constellation resides, and of the mighty oceans  which caress our golden beaches and crash on our rocky cliffs, oceans which stand as a defence against the envy of less happier lands.The people of our nation took this great flag to their hearts.It does the cause of the flag changers no good to perpetrate the myth that they did not, and that the flag did not fly over the great moments of the nation’s life, the tragedies and the triumphs. When the  Australian team consisting of one competitor attended  the 1904 Olympic Games in  St Louis USA, he marched with the Australian flag.Since 1908,  the Australian Flag  has flown over all army forts and military establishments. When the Royal Australian Navy was founded in 1911, the flag was chosen as the ensign to be worn on all of what would proudly be His Majesty’s Australian Ships.When, in 1912, in the icy chill of the Antarctic, Frank Wild, a member of Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition, formally took possession of Queen Mary Land (now part of Australian Antarctic Territory) in the name of King George V and the Australian Commonwealth, he hoisted the Australian flag. When, in 1914, His Majesty’s Australian Ship Sydney defeated the German warship, SMS Emden – an event which was relayed around the world and thus establishing the fighting reputation of the Royal Australian Navy – HMAS Sydney was wearing a large Australian flag as her battle ensign.  When, in 1917, to mark the victory of our forces at the Battle of Polygon Wood, Belgium, Lt A.V.L. Hull, who was later killed in action, planted the Australian flag on an enemy pillbox. That scene is very well known – it was  depicted on a popular postcard sold to raise funds for wounded soldiers.

How could we change this Flag? When, in 1918, General Sir John Monash advised the Governor-General that his troops in France had broken through the German lines, he told him that after liberating Harbonnieres, the troops had raised the Australian flag.  How could we even think of changing this Flag?When, in 1928 Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith made the very first flight across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, he carried three Australian flags in his aircraft, the Southern Cross. These flags were subsequently presented to Sydney Hospital.  When, in 1940, she defeated the Italian navy’s cruiser, Bartolomeo Colleoni, the second HMAS Sydney wore the Australian flag as her battle ensign.  (In the following year, Prime Minister Robert Menzies issues a press statement encouraging the public to fly the blue Australian flag on land and the Australian Red Ensign at sea.)  In  1942, during an air raid,  the Australian flag flying outside the residence of the Administrator of the Northern Territory became the first flag in Australia to have come under enemy  attack. This same flag, still bearing bullet holes, was used in Darwin for a peace ceremony in 1946, flanked on one side by the Australian flag which flew at Villiers-Bretonneux in 1917 and on the other by the Australian flag flown by the HMAS Sydney when it destroyed the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in the Mediterranean in 1940. This venerated flag is now on permanent display at the Australian War Memorial. How could we change it?When, in 1942, the allies retook Kokoda, New Guinea, the Australian flag was raised.When, in 1943, Sgt Tom Derrick VC destroyed ten enemy machine-gun posts at Mount Sattelberg, New Guinea, he raised the Australian flag on a shell torn tree.  When in 1945 Singapore was liberated from the Japanese,   the very first flag to fly over the liberated city was our Australian Flag. It had been concealed in a prisoner of war camp. You can imagine what would have happened if those cruel guards had found that, something which the flag changers might contemplate. This Flag is now held at the headquarters of the Returned and Services League, Canberra. It is in a frame with a plaque which reads "This important artefact was concealed in Changi Prison by Captain Strawbridge MBE, from 1942-1945. It was raised over the gates of the prison, the day of formal liberation in September 1945."Ladies and Gentlemen, how could we possibly change this Flag?  Are we to deny our inheritance, our heritage?The Australian Flag has been with us in peace and especially, in war. It  has been with us both in triumph and in tragedy.When the bodies of our service personnel who have paid the ultimate price are honoured on the battlefield, when they are consigned to the deep, and when they are brought home, the Flag envelopes their casket. When our athletes triumph, our Flag is there.

In the homes of the rank and file, and over the mansions of the rich and powerful, in schools and in public places, from our great buildings, in our cities, our towns and in small settlements, the Australian Flag flies and it flies proudly.It is the symbol, the beloved symbol of the nation. As that great leader of the Labor Party Dr H V Evatt QC once told the national Parliament, “it is a very beautiful Flag. It is probably the most beautiful Flag in the world.”It is indelibly linked with our nation. Long may it fly over our Commonwealth.                          


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