Let's bid adieu to the red, white and blue

Eureka o'er Sydney Harbour Bridge, 3 Dec 2004

I have nothing new to add to the flag silliness of this week – just a re-hash of some old stuff.

The Australian flag has outlived its utility to the nation. Our blue ensign flag, with the Union Jack occupying the canton, continues to designate Australia as a dominion of the British Empire. Of the more than 50 nations in the Commonwealth only Australia, New Zealand and Fiji have yet to change their flag to properly symbolise their independence. The Australian flag also fails to sufficiently identify Australia. Who can forget when the Canadians flew the New Zealand flag for Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s visit in 1985? Some argue that the current Australian flag is sacred, our soldiers having fought and died under it during wartime. Yet in the Boer War and both world wars, Australians fought mostly under either the Union Jack or the Australian red ensign flag; the Australian blue ensign only became the official national flag with the passing of the Flags Act of 1954. We strongly believe that Australia should adopt the Eureka flag as our new national flag. Described by the Age in the 1850s as the ‘Australian Flag of Independence’, the Eureka flag is uniquely Australian, aesthetically beautiful and rich in symbolism. It conveys the spirit of the Ballarat Reform League and the Eureka uprising—republicanism, democracy, egalitarianism and mateship. Adopting the Eureka flag as the national flag would powerfully connect Australians with our past and with our national values. It would also enhance our sense of being part of a larger ongoing Australian project, with a rich and exciting past. Reclaiming the Eureka flag—standing as it also does as a symbol of fairness and tolerance—would, if handled carefully, have great resonance among Australia’s Indigenous and immigrant communities. Australia should reclaim the Eureka flag and fly it high on Capitol Hill.

From Duncan, Leigh, Madden & Tynan, Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future (2004). For more on why we think the Eureka legend and flag can and should be reclaimed from the fringe-dwellers, see this oped.

(Photo courtesy of Peter Fyfe.)

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29 Responses to Let's bid adieu to the red, white and blue

  1. BJE says:

    I’m glad that you referred to this passage from the book in the context of the current brouhaha. As I read the book, amongst the many other passages worth reflection, this one struck a chord with me – the significance of a unifying symbol of the future Australia a strong ideal. However, an intelligent discussion about the continuing relevance of a national flag, with its anglo-colonial origins, does appear to be a distant prospect given some of the careless responses this week…

  2. David Mathews says:

    Thank goodness. Finally a whiff of sanity in this nationalist, xenophobic debate about wrapping ourselves in the British ensign.

    Let’s fly the Eureka Flag proudly, but not have it used as a quasi-fascist weapon against anyone who isn’t white.

  3. cam says:

    How about flag pluralism instead. Sect 5 of the Flag Act enables the GG to elevate flags to official flags of Australia. Change the legislation so Section 5 flags can be used as national flags if an individual chooses, and through referenda new flags can be elevated to section 5 status. That would allow those that like the blue ensign to keep doing so, while others who prefer flags such as the eureka flag (or others that have passed a referendum) can use the flag that best represents their Australianiaty. There is nothing that says a nation-state has to have a unitary national flag.

  4. Matt says:

    “Reclaiming the Eureka flag—standing as it also does as a symbol of fairness and tolerance”

    “Let’s fly the Eureka Flag proudly, but not have it used as a quasi-fascist weapon against anyone who isn’t white. ”

    Andrew, unless I am wrong, I do not believe that there were any Chinese miners at the Eureka Stockade. Peter Lalor when he entered Parliament also opposed the vote for anyone who did not own property.

    “Fairness and tolerance” clearly had its limits during this period of “republicanism, democracy, egalitarianism and mateship.”

  5. derrida derider says:

    Yes, Matt, but Peter Lalor was a rat – in modern terms, he was an ex-Trot who joined the neocons. You’re quite right about the highly selective implementation of the democracy and egalitarianism bit by the miners tough.

  6. harry clarke says:

    Andrew, I understand you points but why worry about recognising our British heritage. Our democracy, legal system, dominant religion and generally liberal culture and tolerance all stem from this heritage. It’s the part of our culture that most Australians – even if they are not of British ancestry – value the most.

    The flag is a very powerful symbol for me and I would hate to lose it. Trying to change the flag would invoke bitter divisions.

    Losing it would make me feel that we are undermining our historical roots for trendy-left reasons. The Eureka flag sends off bad messages.

  7. Andrew Leigh says:

    I’ve added a link to the post to an oped in which we explained why we think that Eureka is such a fine legend and flag. It’s true that the Chinese weren’t represented in the Eureka stockade, but plenty of other nationalities were.

  8. Borofkin says:

    I have no particular opinion on what form a future flag should take, except that it should include Australia’s national colours, green and gold. A flag is supposed to be a unifying symbol, something on which we all agree. I can’t think of any groups that would have an objection to gum-tree green and wattle gold.

  9. Bring Back CL's blog says:

    hands up all those who can immediately tell our flag from the Kiwis?

    when Australia played in the greatest sporting contest on the globe last year Aussies wore green and gold not this silly flag.
    You see more sporting kangaroos courtesy of Alan Bond than the flag.

    Get rid of it and replace with something in the green and gold.

  10. Uncle Milton says:

    “The flag is a very powerful symbol for me and I would hate to lose it. Trying to change the flag would invoke bitter divisions. Losing it would make me feel that we are undermining our historical roots…”

    But, why, Harry? The historical roots of the Blue Ensign go back just 53 years. These are very shallow roots.

    Harry’s response sums up nicely the problem for people who want to cIhange the flag. Even if a majority want to change it, those who are opposed to change, like Harry, feel much more strongly about the issue than those who want to a new flag. And with the rather bizarre current attachment of the 20 somethings to the flag (assuming this isn’t a media beat up), this isn’t likely to change any time soon.

    It is of course a nonsense to suggest that we would be abandoning our British heritage by not having the British flag take up 25% of the space on our flag, as it does now. It’s not as though we would abandon our paliamentary political system, or system of common law, or sense of fair play (“it’s not cricket”) if we changed the flag.

    But a lot of people seem to believe that we would, including those who should know better.

  11. harry clarke says:

    Uncle Milton, The current flag doesn’t celebrate our British background? You are kidding are you not.

    And I did not suggest that changing the flag would lead to a fascist dictatorship. The flag is a symbol and, in my view, a symbol worth retaining.

    Our historical roots are important and worth recognising.

  12. Claire says:

    Time for me to play devil’s advocate again. The Eureka “legend” is indeed a fine reflection of Australia’s culture. Leaves out women, leaves out a sizable minority, and leaves out Indigenous people (one of the demands, you remember, was universal suffrage which excluded women and Aborigines) . The nationalities represented were almost entirely either English-speaking or Western European.

    So Andrew please leave off on the inclusivity argument. Such ideals are only inclusive if you already belong to the group they celebrate.

  13. Uncle Milton says:

    Harry, the current flag reflects our British background. But having the union flag take uo 25% of the space on it is an anachronism. And if Scotland becomes independent, as is increasingly likely, then the concept of Britain itself will be an anachronism.

    There are many ways of recognising our important historical roots. For one thing, we are members of the British Commonwealth, and no one (including the republicans among us) is suggesting that shouldn’t be. More importantly, our enduring political and legal institutions are a very tangible recognition of our Brisitsh roots, as they should be,

  14. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I saw a scifi movie where the Australian flag had the Aboriginal flag in place of the Union Jack – looked quite nice actually.

    The South African experience of changing the flag may be informative. Clearly the previos flag was untenable, so a competition was called, and two individuals (one from the ANC and one from the National Party) choose a new flag and presented it as a done deal. Everyone jumped up and down about how terrible it looked for a month or so, then got over it and now everyone’s happy. The authorities did a swap for the old flags, so people could take their old flag in and swap it for a new one (as I recall).

  15. Russell says:

    I’m generally conservative, or don’t much care, about such things. But I can see that the Eureka flag is too divisive, and doesn’t have recognisably Australian colours or symbols.

    I could agree with Harry about the history thing, but what if they had put a Christian Cross in there as well as the Union Jack? – we appreciate our history, but we’ve moved on, it doesn’t reflect us as we now are.

    I think the most likely new design to be widely approved would be the one with green and blue separated by a yellow boomerang, with the Southern Cross over the blue. The Southern Cross part if familiar, the boomerang is internationally distinctive and the green and gold are both our national colours, and give the flag a sort of energy that suits us, rather than the stiff formality of the existing flag.

  16. Patrick says:

    I am very reluctant to change the flag, but I certainly think any successful change will build on green and gold. Otherwise, sad as it may seem to geeks who actually know Peter Lalor was, you are just swapping an known and identified with logo for a relatively unknown and unidentified with logo.

  17. Claire says:

    Russell, the Union Jack is a Christian cross! Three of them! The crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick.

  18. derrida derider says:

    Harry, that justification of “it reflects where we came from” intrigues me. After all, if it reflected most of Australia’s history it would have the Aboriginal flag, not the Union Jack, in that top corner. If it reflected our ancestry its actually unlikely that the majority of the genes in Australia are British – apart from the Irish, we’ve had many millions of non-Brit migrants who tended to be more fertile than the average restrained Englishman.

    Tell me, if the UK changed its flag would you still want the (now obsolete) Union Jack in there? I’m not really snarking, but I do find it hard to see where you’re coming from. Are you sure it’s not just a reflex aversion to change?

  19. Neanderthalsis says:

    Of the Commonwealth, Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Falkland Islands, Montserrat, New Zealand, Pitcairn Islands, St. Helena, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands and Turks & Caicos Islands all have the Union Jack on a navy blue background with some additional distinguishing features. (Must get a bit monotonous when flying the flags at a CHOGM meeting)

    Although I am loathe to admit it, maybe we do need a flag that is slightly more distingushable. A return to the Red Ensign would suffice as only Bermuda has the Jack on a red background unless you include the Isle of Mann Civil Ensign.

    Green and gold also feature heavily in the Commonwealth. http://www.flags.net/COMN.htm

  20. Pol says:

    Another excuse to argue about little.

    IF people were really so concerned they would start by celebrating Australia as an independant nation on Federation Day… but in true aussie fashion of greater concern is the prospect of loosing a holiday at end of january.

    When did the Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia commence ?

  21. harry clarke says:

    derrida derrider, In part it is a reflex action against changing things – why change it? The presumption is that you retain long-lived historical symbols not change them at whim. Its necessary to make a really substantive case and I haven’t seen one.

    BTW I was not talking about genes but cultural traditions and the generally liberal society we live in.

    Britain got Australia off to a great start and I still think that culturally we are more British than American.

    I think the history of the aboriginal is interesting and its an important part of our traditions. But – for good or bad – it doesn’t bear on the society created in Australia.

  22. Hi Andrew. I think we can add to the list of states and sub-states that still use the Union Jack in their national flag. Besides Autralia, New Zealand and Fiji we can add Tuvalu.

    As well, despite Canada dropping the Union Jack in favour of the maple leaf, at least three of the provinces still maintain the Union Jack in their flags. Interestingly, the US state of Hawaii also uses the Union Jack in its own state flag.

  23. Leopold says:

    Get the Union Jack off, get the Qantas logo on. What could be more Aussie than that?

  24. conrad says:

    It would be good if we could change the national anthem to something decent also.

  25. Yobbo says:

    Leopold: You want one of the world’s worst airlines to be the symbol of our country? If you want to celebrate fascist mercantilism, just leave the union jack on there…

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  28. Patrick Ward says:

    There are more than 50 sovereign nations in the Commonwealth. All but three, have chosen flags which clearly identify their sovereignty independence, and nationhood, without abandoning their British heritage. Simply because you take the Union Jack out of a flag doesn’t mean the country abandons it’s British heritage. It’s time Australia caught up and flew a flag of it’s own as opposed to a defaced British Ensign, as that is exactly what it is.

  29. Ballarat Jack says:

    The very fact that interpretations of the Eureka Flag as it applies to Australian history and society are so varied would indicate its suitability as the national flag. It can be interpreted as a symbol of a desire for independence, as workers collectively seeking justice for families and community, or as embracing a society searching for an independent future separate from historic ties. The way it came about overrides stupid, petty quasi-commercial competitions which produces second-rate flags like the one we’ve got now – or which have kangaroos etc. A bit of courage on the part of politicians to accept a truly national symbol like the Eureka flag to represent us all would be a refreshing change.

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