Myth-busting Continued: the Australian Flag Debate

The Top Myths in Australia’s ‘Flag Change Debate’

Today I heard that New Zealand has announced a referendum on whether or not to change the national flag, which makes me think about the debate, or lack of, about whether to change the Australian flag.

Let me start by declaring my own interest in the outcome. As a believer in plebiscite, I can happily support the current flag, or something else; whatever the majority of Australians want. However, what I PREFER is a flag that accurately represents the nation. I would like to see the flag changed, as I don’t believe the current one demonstrates sufficiently an autonomous Australia.

What I can’t stand, and thus the cause of this article, is those with a view who lie to coalesce others behind their view. There are so many who would seek, indeed have sought, to polarise a debate that really should not be, that makes me want to dispel a few of the leading myths; they are barriers of ignorance to decent debate.

blue ensign

The current Australian flag, or blue ensign

The myths are numerous, and largely propagated by the opponents of change, but include assertions that changing the flag means becoming a Republic, that thousands of Australians died ‘ for the flag’, and that our flag is widely, universally recognisable already.

The leading myth that seems to do the rounds is that thousands of Australians have died under, fighting for, the current flag since 1901.

Hereafter, some of the facts about the Australian flag, and addressing some of the myths associated with the national flag.

1)      Changing the flag means becoming a Republic and severing ties with the British Monarchy.

This is such a simple myth to discount; I find it extraordinary some people still believe it.

The flag debate, and the Republic debate, are two separate issues. Although they are often conflated.

Changing the flag does not necessarily mean becoming a Republic, as we saw in the case of Canada. Likewise, becoming a Republic does not of itself mean a change of the flag, as we saw in the case of Fiji.

The two are distinct debates, although both are about change in national identify, and one can be addressed without necessarily addressing the other.

2)      Changing the flag turns our back on the sacrifice of so many soldiers who died fighting for the flag.

If you examine this statement, it contains two assumptions:

a)      That Australian soldiers fight for the flag

b)      That the current Australian flag is the flag soldiers have fought and died for since Federation.

Both are erroneous, and give rise to the myth.

The current Australian flag, otherwise called the blue ensign, only became the national flag in 1954. Soldiers, who fought for Australia up to and including the Korean War, did not fight for, or under, the Australian flag as we now know it.

Prior to 1954, the use of the blue ensign as the national flag was strongly and actively discouraged. It was, if you examine the history of the blue ensign, designed as a result of a flag competition at the time of Federation, and rejected by, in particular, the military establishment. The Department of Defence was the greatest opponent of the blue ensign being adopted nationally (they thought it too ‘marine’). The blue ensign as we know and use it today did not become some glorious and romantic flag of the people, but rather served until 1954 as an instrument of Government.

In the early part of the century Australian soldiers mostly departed and returned under the Union Jack. In addition, often juxtaposed with the Union Jack, the Australian red and blue ensigns were, from 1901, used as banners or shipping flags.

And so, generations of Australians did NOT die for the Australian flag or even under it. The current flag was NOT the Australian flag during World War 1 or World War 2, or even the Korean War. The flag most often used in the context, WW1 and WW2, was the Australian Red Ensign, a naval flag that was broadly favoured for military use.

And of course in Korea, Australians fought under (for?) the UN, and the Red Ensign was still Australia’s official flag for another year past the end of that war.

red ensign

The Red Ensign

The second assumption underwriting this leading myth is that members of the armed services in Australia in the past century have ‘fought and died for the flag’.

Australian soldiers – my Dad among them, and others who fought and died during Australia’s wars, surely fought and died for our country? It is a subtle, but important, difference if it is to be used as the leading argument against change. You would likely have to poll a lot of soldiers and their families/descendants to find out why people fought in our wars. But I suspect ‘the flag’ is not the answer.

And prior to 1954, if one maintains that solders are unable to distinguish between a flag and a nation, and therefore do fight and die for a flag rather than a people or polity, then they fought and died for the red ensign, not our current national flag.

If you want numbers: as to how many have given their lives under what flag, then of the more than 102,000 Australian soldiers who have died since Federation, approximately 668 – around two thirds of 1% – have died under the blue ensign. The remainder, 1901-1954, died under (if not specifically ‘for’) the red  ensign. It is accurate to say that the Australian red ensign is therefore 99% MORE representative of those Australians who have died fighting for Australia than any other flag.

Further, if you speak specifically about navy, as an arm in itself, they fought under (if not for) the British White Ensign from 1911, when they were formed, until as late as 1967.

The evidence of the red ensign being the Australian flag until 1954 is overwhelming. By contrast, the blue ensign was rarely seen, its use being restricted to government buildings and schools.

Towards World War II, the Australian red ensign became popular, although the Union Jack usually flew alone or in a senior position to the red ensign. In WW1, the red ensign and Union Jack flew alongside each other in, for example, recruiting posters and the like.

The former head of the Returned and Services League in Australia, Bruce Ruxton, paid $25,000 for the flag kept by the prisoners of Changi. It is an Australian red ensign.

Sir Douglas Mawson’s flag in his time capsule in Antarctica is an Australian red ensign.

Flags carried by Australian soldiers of both world wars were Australian red ensigns.

The flags flying at the Australian War Memorial are overwhelmingly Australian red ensigns.

When Queen Elizabeth II came to Australia in 1954, she was welcomed by millions of Australians mostly waving Union Jacks and, that’s right, Australian red ensigns. And it was only during this visit that she proclaimed the current Australian flag, for the first time making the blue ensign the preferred colour.

As an interesting aside, the Prime Minister who brought in the change to the flag, Robert Menzies, in 1953 made the blue ensign the national design and removed the red ensign. He did so:

a)      without any recourse to the Australian people; and

b)      solely because, suffering communist paranoia, he wanted the ‘red’ removed.

One wonders if Menzies had gone to  a referendum, at a time when the argument was perhaps more valid that many Australians HAD fought and died under the red ensign, whether a change would have been agreed.

As a further interesting aside, if Liberal is your political colour, then you should note that the Liberal Party was not formed in 1945 under any Australian flag, it was formed under the Union Jack.

3)      The current flag is universally recognised as the Australian flag.

Perhaps the current flag is indeed ‘universally’ recognised as Australian…. as long as you poll only within Australia (and perhaps New Zealand).

Without a wide-ranging global poll to find out its real universality, it is impossible to say either way.

However, as an expatriate Australian having lived and worked in more than 45 countries, I can assure fellow Australians that the Australian flag is NOT widely recognised as Australian, and largely because it is not distinctive.

It can be, and often is, confused with flags of New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, a wide range of yacht clubs a, a few fire stations from what this poster suggests, and of course the states of Australia. Even the Boxing Kangaroo flag is more widely understood as symbolising Australia.

confused flags

As a demonstration of this, you might sit an Australian down with the wide range of national and other flags that are similar, and ask them to pick, for example, Samoa or Fiji, from the pile.

In 1985, Bob Hawke (then Prime Minister of Australia) was greeted famously in Ottawa with the New Zealand flag. The fact is, the current Australian flag is not at all distinctively Australian to the rest of the world, and this cannot be used as a valid argument against change. Many people, even those who are pretty good with flags, get the Australian flag confused for others, especially New Zealand.

It is notable that few if any get the Canadian flag wrong. And the debate in Canada before the change was similarly heated, similarly divisive, and racked with polarising hyperbole propagating pretty much the same myths as in Australia.

If you want universally recognisable, and distinctive, the current design is certainly not it.

There are many possible, distinctive, and nationally representative flags out there. In the same way change can come to national anthems (as Australia’s did in 1977), and to sporting colours (as Australia’s did in 1984), so too flags can change without rejecting the sacrifice of others, without changing the political system, and without turning our backs on a strong and universally-recognised design.

alternative aust flags

Let us debate about the Australian flag, whether change is desirable to reflect a very changed country and context.

But let’s leave out the polarising myths and emotive hyperbole.


UPDATE 1: Presumably in reply to the NZ Prime Minister’s announcement of a referendum, on 12 March 2014, the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said changing the flag was “not an issue that actually draws much attention in Australia”.

“There’s no great demand to change it and many Australians have fought and died under that flag, sadly,” she said.

“We have competed in Olympic Games under that flag and there’s a sense of pride in it.”

So, there’s the view of the current government. Let’s, in the meantime, watch how the progressive kiwis go!