If the flag fits…

Australia Day 2010 left me in no doubt that the Australian national flag has taken on a new meaning for the good folk of this country. It was EVERYWHERE. Mounted at beachfront campsites and front lawns; transformed into esky’s, stubby holders, towels and chairs; worn as hats, bathers, singlets and thongs (although what is dignified about walking all over this national symbol is lost on me). The variety of ways we have found to flaunt the Aussie flag is nothing short of inspiring.

Yes, we are all terribly proud to be Australian, and there is nothing we love more than to stand under that glorious Southern Cross crowned by the Union Jack reciting a rousing rendition of Aussie. Aussie. Aussie. Oi. Oi. Oi.

Yet, this sudden and growing passion for our flag is causing me a little discomfort (and I know I’m not alone, I’ve asked around). It’s not that I’m not proud to be Australian. Absolutely I am, I couldn’t live anywhere else. I do think it’s important to have a day to celebrate being part of this great, big, cuddly family called Australia, and God knows there is nothing more Australian than a public holiday and a free sausage in bread. It’s just that, well, I’m not sure exactly what I am celebrating under the image of our national flag.

People seem to have forgotten, or be unaware, that our national flag hasn’t been around for very long. 1953 to be exact. For a country whose dominant culture goes back just over 200 years, it is considered a young flag.

Its symbolism reflects the social, political and cultural norms of Australia in 1953 – ie: England is the mother country and a significant proportion of our population were classified as fauna rather than people. (Yes, Aboriginal people were categorised as ‘animals’ at the time.)

The Australian National Flag Association website defines our flag as a national identifier that represents “… a free and democratic people in a nation united in purpose. Our national flag belongs equally to all Australians whatever their origins. Each of the symbols on the flag has a special meaning for Australians. The stars of the Southern Cross represent our geographic position in the Southern Hemisphere; the Commonwealth star stands for our federation of States and Territories; the Crosses represent the principles on which our nation is based, namely, parliamentary democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech.”

Yep, sounds good on first reading. Nothing I couldn’t agree with. We are democratic, we are united, we are free. Except.

Except the national flag can’t belong to all Australians whatever their origins, because the first Australians, our Aboriginal people, were deliberately excluded from participating in its design and its final selection. And while the history books and politicians (and the Australian National Flag Association website) want us to believe that our nation is based on the principles of parliamentary democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech, in 1953 those principles only applied to the ‘new Australian’s’, the ones who had arrived here in the last 150 years. For Aboriginal people there was no democracy, no freedom of speech. (However there was rule of law. Lots of laws, made especially for them, that controlled every aspect of their lives.)

It strikes me that today the images on our flag are a bit outdated. While the Southern Cross is as relevant to Australia as Uluru and vegemite, I’m not so sure about the Union Jack. It reminds me of the images I’ve seen over the years of flag waving fanatics in other parts of the world, who use their flags as a justification for a dangerous and exclusive nationalism.

Patriotism is a funny thing. One minute you can be riding high on it, united with your fellow country people, then it can suddenly turn on you, and the next thing you know you are ostracising your next door neighbour because she hates cricket and doesn’t know the words to Khe San. Oscar Wilde was not too far off the mark when he wrote ‘Patriotism is the virtue of the viscous.’

The dictionary definition of patriotism includes ‘concern for the common good of one’s political community’. I am not yet convinced that, as Australians, we are clear about who is our ‘political community’ and what we expect of each other as members. Those who raise questions about the relevance of our flag in 2010 are vehemently denounced by the ‘political community’ who identify with it. I get a strong sense that to question the Australian national flag is an act of treachery (or stupidity).

I don’t think that is what I want the flag I stand under to represent. I’d prefer a flag that allows us to have that debate, that represents a nation that is inclusive, that is genuinely unified and that has the courage to consider change where change may be warranted. That’s an Australian flag I can be proud of.

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