Channel 9’s public meeting about the National Flag went ahead on Monday night 19th April at Leichhardt Town Hall. This was for its current affairs programme, “60 Minutes”.
…a robust but fair meeting…
Although I still disapprove of the programme being broadcast on ANZAC Day, the event was successful because it was both real and it was democratic. I thought Ray Martin, who has a position I disagree with, ran a pretty fair show. He had to deal with frequent interjections, and had to cut short some speakers who veered off the subject.
Above all the Australian Flag was successfully defended, especially by the Australian National Flag Association's (ANFA) John Vaughan and Bert Martin.
This gracious Victorian building has undoubtedly seen many lively debates, and last night was probably among the liveliest, at least in the post television age.
Before then, political rallies were unplanned and robust, especially the conservative ones which invariably attracted militant communists and socialists whose aim was to disrupt the meeting. Usually this involved no more than robust interjections, where the then Liberal leader Mr. Robert Menzies could be assured to react with an entertaining repartee.
However I do remember a newsreel where Mr. Menzies had to duck to avoid the rotten fruit and eggs thrown at him. I imagine the police would have had to intervene then. The Prime Minister WM (“Billy”) Hughes is said to have established the Federal Police when a state policeman refused to arrest a person who threw an egg at him at a public meeting. No one could do that now – attendance at political meetings is now only by invitation.
In any event this evening had none of that disorder, but the audience did not hold back from interjecting and showing their disapproval or approval.
And unlike the excruciatingly boring election rallies the political parties put on this it was real. It was lively and emotional. But there was never a hint of violence. It’s what our politicians ought to face instead of the party faithful who applaud when told like trained pavlovian dogs. The irony was that this old world meeting was for the insatiable appetite of the very invention which ended most of them, television.
…not on ANZAC Day…
And there was a surge of feeling against the timing of the broadcast, a feeling that some things are just not done on ANZAC Day.
During the referendum campaign, a suggestion some veterans march under a Vote No banner was quickly abandoned when wiser voices recalled that however worthy this was, it was not in keeping with the objective of the ANZAC Day march – to remember those who died and those who served.Anyway there we were in the heart of the of Sydney's Italian quarter, surrounded by marvellous restaurants.
It was a Monday night, the quietest night of the week there. And it wasn’t so quiet in the Town Hall.
….flag changers in the minority…
The subject for the discussion was provocative: “Is it an iconic Australian contemporary image or a colonial relic which should be replaced with something that better reflects Australian society in 2010?” My feeling was that the hall was divided with a clear majority in favour of keeping the flag. There is no doubt that this would be even larger among the general population.
…two weaknesses in the case for change…
One argument the flag changers push is we must have a flag which unites us. By that they mean a Flag which they want. There are two problems with this.
First they have not come up with a flag which Australians immediately recognize as a symbol which is as good as the one they have. Too many new flags fall into the beach towel category. Then there was that republican embarrassment – how the republican leaders allowed that one is beyond understanding. That was the flag in the ARM-AUSFLAG Turnbull and Partners supported exhibition which shrieked “ F*** off to Fagland”
The second problem is there will always be dissenters. We are a democracy after all. So a small minority do not like our flag. That is unfortunate, but not a reason for the overwhelming majority to shred their heritage.
Take the case of our National Anthem, Advance Australia Fair. This received a vote of only 43.29% in the 1977 plebiscite to choose a National Song – not a National Anthem. Only in NSW did Advance Australia get a clear majority – just – but in South Australia the vote was only 24.07%.
The South Australians preferred the strains of the beautiful Song of Australia, which graced what was once the ABC’s flagship talk programme, Guest of Honour.
In 1984, the Hawke government, without consultation, changed the words, suppressed part and made what was left of Advance Australia Fair the National Anthem, with God Save the Queen the Royal Anthem. The original draft proclamation would have made it unlawful to sing God Save the Queen in the absence of royalty.
They were saved from public ridicule through the wise intervention of the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen. But in recent years the then NSW Premier Bob Carr, pausing from state affairs, called for Advance Australia Fair to be replaced with “I Still Call Australia Home”. That is the tune often played by Qantas as a prelude to landing in Australia.
But you can’t change your flag or your anthem every few years. The Russians may have had some reason to do this, but we fortunately are a stable country.
…the case for our Australian Flag…
Returning to Monday night, the entry of Ray Martin was greeted by more boos than cheers. And on the timely initiative of ANFA's Dianna Hammond, the Leichhardt Town Hall united in singing the National Anthem. A coin was tossed, and Peter FitzSimons decided ANFA's John Vaughan should begin.
He was outstanding.
He recalled the 1901 competition for the design of a federal Australian flag and how over 30,000 entries were received. The winning design , the "Stars and Crosses" was raised for the first time over the Royal Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne – the site of the first Federal Parliament.
Mr. Vaughan was followed later by Mr. Bert Lane, a former serving officer, who flew over from Western Australia. Together they made a superb contribution, correcting many of the myths which are circulated to deprecate the flag. Further information may be found on the ANFA site, which I have used as an aide for the following summary of their addresses.
…from Breaker Morant …
There is a myth the armed forces did not serve under the Australian Flag, and the Union Flag was effectively the National Flag. Mr Vaughan pointed out that after his execution, the Australian flag was used to covered the grave of "Breaker" Morant.
Our Flag flew at the 1904 Olympic Games in St Louis USA and the 1908 London Olympic Games in celebration of the first medal win for Australia.
When the Royal Australian Navy was formed in 1911, the Australian flag became the ensign to be worn from the jackstaff of all RAN commissioned ships. It was decided the Flag be displayed at the mainmast as the "battle flag" when a ship is in combat, as HMAS Sydney did in 1914 in her celebrated victory over the German warship, SMS Emden. (The success of HMAS Sydney was an international news event and established the fighting reputation of the Royal Australian Navy.)
When Australian forces prevailed at the Battle of Polygon Wood, Belgium, in 1917 during World War 1, Lieutenant A.V.L. Hull, who was later killed in action, planted the Australian flag on an enemy pillbox.
…Sir John Monash…
In 1918 General Sir John Monash advised the Governor-General that his troops in France have broken through the German lines and had raised the Australian flag after liberating Harbonnieres.
…Second World War…
In 1940 the second HMAS Sydney, with the Australian flag flying as "battle" ensign, defeated the Italian navy’s cruiser, Bartolomeo Colleoni.
In 1942 , the Australian flag that flew outside the residence of the Administrator of the Northern Territory was riddled with bullet holes during a Japanese air raid – the first flag to come under enemy attack on Australian soil.
The same flag was used in Darwin for a peace ceremony in 1946. Now on permanent display at the Australian War Memorial, it was 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.
In the same year the Australia’s flag was raised as the allies retake Kokoda, New Guinea. In 1943 Sgt Tom Derrick raised the Australian flag on a shell torn tree at Mount Sattelberg, New Guinea, after having destroyed ten enemy machine-gun posts. His incredible feat earns him the ultimate award for valour, the Victoria Cross.
The first flag to fly over the liberated Singapore in 1945 was an Australian flag secretly made in a prisoner of war camp.
Another Australian flag raised at the liberation of Singapore is now framed and held at the headquarters of the Returned and Services League, Canberra 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."A number of Australian flags were secretly made of scavenged pieces of cloth by Australian prisoners of war in various enemy camps. Some of these precious flags are now lodged in the Australian War Memorial.
This information shared with the audience by John Vaughan and Bert Lane was received in relative quiet. I suspect that some of the flag changers did not know these compelling facts. A full timeline on the Flag can be seen on the ANFA site.
In particular in 2001 the Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, proclaimed the Centenary Flag Warrant. The Centenary Flag is the flag presented on 3 September 2001 to the Prime Minister by the Australian National Flag Association at the flag centenary celebration – Royal Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne. It is a fully sewn, satin, Australian flag, inscribed with a special flag centenary message.
This flag of "Stars and Crosses" features the crimson thread of kinship, which symbolically links past and current generations to future generations of Australians. It will be used for future important national events.
…case for change….
Mr. Peter FitzSimons then argued the case for change. (He earlier came over to shake hands with me – a gracious gesture.)
He was subject to frequent interjections, but with his poerful voice and strong personality had no real difficulty in putting his case, earning extra time to make up for this. Indeed the interjections allowed him, unintentionally, to emphasise his points.
In essence he objects to “the flag of another country being on his flag”.
No doubt he will present his case in full in the Sun Herald next Sunday. His argument is about independence and maturity. His view was reflected by other speakers who referred to their Irish or Aboriginal antecedents. Their argument is that they are excluded by the Flag. But this is certainly not the view of all Australians of Irish or Aboriginal descent.
…the constitution and the Flag…
At one point Mr. Martin asked me to speak. I began by drawing attention to the provisions of the Flag Act as amended in the last Parliament. This requires any change be agreed by the people in a referendum, and most importantly, that the existing Flag be included in any vote.
This means that any decision on flag change must be made by the people. That of course is the democratic way.
I pointed out that Captain Philip did not come alone in 1788 – he brought with the eleven ships, the convicts, the sailors and the marines four gifts which are with us today.
These are not colonial relics; they are the pillars of our nation. These are our English language, the rule of law under the common law, our Judeo Christian values which are meant for all, as the Rev Richard Johnson stressed in the first sermon, and leadership beyond politics. This comes through our oldest institution,the Crown which before self government sought to protect the weak against the strong and later, was to became a significant check and balance on the political class.
In a surprisingly short period of time, and before the Eureka Stockade, the British introduced legislation to give us self government under the Westminster system, with our own Parliaments and governments.
Then came the sixth pillar, the people’s decision “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God…to join together in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown” – if you will, a crowned republic.
No one surely suggests we treat these as colonial relics – although some have tried to construct a mock Crown to replace the real one.
Immediately on Federation our predecessors adopted a Flag which would symbolise these six pillars. And that is the Australian Flag which now flies so proudly over our nation.
Our National Flag could not better symbolise our language, the rule of law under the common law, our Judeo Christian values, leadership beyond politics through the Crown, the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy and the attainment of one nation through federation.
With those pillars and under this Flag we have secured two remarkable achievements. First we have established one of the world’s oldest, most egalitarian and stable democracies. Second we have been unequalled in the contributions we have made to the freedom and liberty of other peoples across the world and through the last century.
Other speakers included Ron Barassi, Pauline Hanson, former Minister John Brown, Warren Mundine, Eliot Harper and Normie Rowe. Space and time do not allow me to summarise their contributions.
But I should mention that, while arguing for change, Ron Barassi registered a timely plea; that people keep their hatreds, if they had them, in the room.
On the whole, and as a democratic exercise, it was a satisfactory evening.
Broadcasting on Anzac Day apart (at least it will be in the evening) Channel 9 through Danny keens and Ray Martin were fair and allowed all sides an opportunity to speak.
Obviously there will need to be editing; I assume that will also be fair.
I think that ANFA ‘s case as to the role and place of the Flag in national life prevailed. In any event, the ultimate power to decide is now with the people.
This requires the politicians to begin the process.
But in the present state of public opinion, few MP's would openly support this.
In the meantime the current republican strategy is to pretend the Flag is another issue and to put it off. This is because the republican movement believes the flag debate has now been lost, at least until they get a politicians’ republic.
Since they refuse to or cannot say what sort of republic they want, they propose a plebiscite. ACM has always opposed this because a plebiscite is designed to obtain a vote of no confidence in one of the world’s most successful constitutional systems, without having anything to replace it.
We cannot imagine a more irresponsible invitation for constitutional instability. But that is not the reason why a plebiscite (or referendum) is not being seriously proposed at the moment. It is that it is believed likely that it would be defeated.