“It’s Our Flag”. Australians can hold it high with pride.
The flag of any nation should say something about that nation and its people, its history and its destiny.
The oldest known national flag still in use in the modern world is that of the nation of my wife’s ancestors - Denmark. In 1219, almost 800 years ago, the Danish king had a vision of a white cross in the red early evening sky. Like the Roman Emperor Constantine nine centuries earlier he interpreted this as a sign from God. Denmark continues as a stable and prosperous Christian constitutional monarchy, the envy of much of the world.
Two of the best known flags in the world today are the “Stars and Stripes” of the United States of America and the tricolour of France.
Nobody knows exactly who designed or produced the Stars and Stripes; nor why the colours red, white and blue were chosen.
When the American colonies joined in 1775 to fight the British, their first flag was, in fact the 13 current stripes and the British Union Jack in the corner - and it remained there for the first 2 years of their war against the British. It was the Continental Congress - not the people - who in June 1777 changed the flag to show 13 stars for the 13 colonies - now 50 states.
The tricolour flag of France is associated in our minds forever with the bloody revolution which destroyed the monarchy in 1789 and swept in a decade of mob tyranny and a further 17 years of military dictatorship. But the tricolour was in fact the flag of Louis XVI when he came from Versailles to Paris 3 days after the storming of the Bastille. Red and blue were the official colours of Paris and white the official colour of the French Royal family.
If we were to think of any nations whose flags are zealously defended and honoured by its people, we’d probably think of these two - the Stars and Stripes and the French tricolour - but neither was initially the people’s flag.
The great flag of the modern world, 100 years old today, Australia’s flag, is the flag of the people and the flag of the nation.
Unlike the Stars and Stripes, the Australian flag was not born of a struggle led by merchants who thought their taxes were too high. And in my lifetime that country has routinely gaoled its citizens for their political beliefs. Communist sympathies landed American citizens in prison but membership of the Ku Klux Klan did not.
The Australian flag was not born of hatred such as led to Robespierre’s Reign of Terror and the guillotine in France.
The Australian flag which we honour today is truly the flag of the people.
Australia’s first Prime Minister Edmund Barton launched a competition in April 1901 for the design of a national flag suitable for the new nation which had just embarked upon life under its truly unique, truly Australian constitution democratically introduced. The young nation was based firmly on the tried and true institutions of Britain but it looked to the future confident in its new-found independence. A flag was needed to reflect the young nation’s gratefulness for the past and confidence for the future.
There were 32,823 entries in the competition to choose the flag. Coincidentally, fortuitously, five of the entrants submitted the same design. Two were adult men, one was a woman and two were teenagers. They came from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and (wait for it) Auckland.
The new flag was unfurled for the first time, one hundred years ago today, in Melbourne.
Like the young country the flag embraced the past and the future, tradition and vision.
A poem by Robin Northover has it:
“We’ve the stars to show where we’re going
and the old flag to show where we’ve been”
Three symbols combine in this, the true people’s flag.
The Union Jack, a combination of the flags of St George of England, St Andrew of Scotland, and St Patrick of Ireland - the flag of the United Kingdom - stands for those institutions which we have drawn from Britain - parliamentary democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech: no guillotine, no bloody revolution, no imprisonment for your politics in Britain.
The seven-pointed Federation Star on the Australian flag shows the unity of the states and territories.
The Southern Cross shows not only our geographical location - the great Southland of the Holy Spirit - but it has always been a significant navigation feature. It shows where we are and where we are going. And, again, the Cross.
So completely was our flag embraced by the Australian people that it was 52 years before the Federal parliament got around to passing legislation to make it formally and officially the Australian flag. The legislation was passed unanimously by the parliament. There weren’t any Australian Democrats or Greens in 1953.
I was greatly heartened in the last election to see that every major political party used the Australian flag in its advertising. I was disheartened to know that a number of politicians from some of those parties were actively lobbying to change our flag.
When we were fighting in 1999 to save our constitution from the Republicans we coined a new slogan “It’s our constitution: don’t let a politician tear it up”. On the one hundredth anniversary of the Australian flag I offer you another slogan: “It’s our flag: don’t let a politician tear it down”.
(This information was prepared by Mr Stan Klan, MA BD MEd KSJ, for an address to the Toowoomba Branch of the National Flag Association in 2001).