Australia Needs A New Flag

This is an extract from Gough Whitlam’s speech at the ALP Annual Dinner in Melbourne.

On the question of national identity, I come to an even more emotive topic, the Flag. Australians need a flag which is recognisable in all other countries and is acceptable to everyone in this country. When the Flags Act was passed in 1953 the only members of the UN and the Commonwealth which included the Union Jack in their flags were the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. At that time the Union Jack was also included in the flags of six UN trust territories, including New Guinea. None of them included it in the national flags which they adopted on independence.

Today the only members of the UN which include the Union Jack in their flags are the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji and the only members of the Commonwealth which do so are the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Tuvalu. Canada is the oldest member of the Commonwealth and South Africa has been readmitted to it. The flag of neither country now includes the Union Jack.

On a visit to Ottawa in June 1964 I was in the gallery of the House of Commons when Prime Minister Lester Pearson introduced the bill for Canada’s new flag. He made the point that the inclusion and position of the Union Jack in the national flag led to confusion with the flags and insignia of countries and units in all parts of the world; the flag failed in the prime requirement of presenting a Canadian identity. This point was brought home to Australians when a later Prime Minister of Canada welcomed Bob Hawke on an official visit to Ottawa, the streets were festooned with the flag of New Zealand.

The Southern Cross represents the sole Australian contribution to Australia’s flags and does so in a uniquely recognisable and acceptable style. In my view the arrangement of Australia’s flag, the Southern Cross with white stars on a blue background or blue stars on a white background, should adopt the proportions of Canada’s flag. Like the flags of the US, UK, France and Japan, Canada’s is one of the most greatly admired and readily recognised flags throughout the world.

Blimps like Bruce Ruxton bring the RSL into ridicule by claiming that all Australians have fought under the present flag. Even when our soldiers carried flags in World Wars I and II and our airmen in World War II, there were at least as many Union Jacks as Red or Blue Australian Ensigns. The RAN always used the ensigns of the RN until the latter complained during Australia’s, but not Britain’s, hostilities in Vietnam. In April 1967 Prime Minister Holt inserted the blue Southern Cross and removed the St. George’s Cross in the RAN White Ensign. Early last year another member of my old RAAF squadron sent me photographs of two funerals we attended in January 1945. At Gove and Adelaide River Cemetery the coffins were draped in Union Jacks; at the latter the Red Ensign flew from a flagpole.

The capital of Australia was moved from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927. The Canberra Times published photographs 60 years later to commemorate the anniversary of the opening of Civic Centre by Prime Minister Bruce; there were many Union Jacks but no Australian flags. I was at school in Canberra from that time till the end of 1934; there were always more Union Jacks than Australian flags.

Sporting events are the great occasions for national flags. At the Commonwealth Games at Victoria on Vancouver Island just 11 nations out of 65 participating countries carried flags bearing the Union Jack. Australia and New Zealand aside, they were Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Hong Kong, Montserrat, St Helena, and Tuvalu.

At the 2000 Olympic Games very few of these countries will participate, but Australia’s flag will be on constant display on television round the world. Our team should compete under a flag which is accepted by Australians of all backgrounds and which is recognised as distinctly Australian by all other teams.

Margaret’s and my weeks in Africa and days in Lausanne and Monte Carlo last year in support of Sydney’s 2000 Bid convinced us that the inclusion cf the Union Jack in our flag would be no asset in the Olympic context. The IOC rules ordain that the Olympic Games shall be proclaimed open by the Head of State of the host country. It would be ludicrous to have the Sydney Olympics opened by a woman or man who was not a citizen and resident of Australia.

Australians should have an appropriate Head of State and an appropriate flag before the 2000 Olympics and for the new millennium – a wholly Australian flag, and an Australian Head of State.

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