Poor Ray Martin clearly has an identity crisis - or rather he says that Australia does. He wants to change our flag, claiming that this “high octane issue … has been dividing us since 1901”.
Of course Mr Martin, like every Australian, is entitled to his opinion. However, very few other Australians are given a top-rating television show such as 60 Minutes to air their views!
Martin also says that he is hurt at the criticism he has received for broadcasting this program on Anzac Day, but coming from a journalist with decades of experience these protests are rather disingenuous. He must have known that going to air on Anzac Day would cause a reaction - in fact the public meeting he hosted was clearly designed to generate conflict. Cynics would say that the decision about timing was calculated to feed the controversy that is the lifeblood of television ratings.
Moreover, many media outlets would regard it as unprofessional to allow a leading advocate and partisan for a particular cause to produce and present a “debate” about that very issue. Ray Martin is a Director of Ausflag, the anti-flag lobbying group - a fact he neglected to disclose when he interviewed his fellow directors for the program. Given the obvious conflict of interest, we might have expected Ray to fully investigate the history of our national flag before calling for it to be changed.
Instead 60 Minutes gave a rather misleading impression about the origins of our flag, implying that it was the product of a “magazine sales promotion”. Ray Martin’s reference to “the flag that won the magazine competition over a century ago …” infers that our flag has no official standing.
Perhaps his research to date hasn’t led him to the Government Gazette dated April 29, 1901 whereby “the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia invite competitive designs for a Federal Flag”.(In fact this document, signed by our first Prime Minister, was tabled at the public meeting arranged by 60 Minutes.) Martin’s confusion may result from the fact there had actually been an earlier competition run by a popular magazine - to be as inclusive as possible it was agreed that designs submitted to this competition would be considered as part of the official Commonwealth flag competition.
The effort to belittle the flag design competition that followed federation in 1901 dishonours the “have a go” spirit that is so much a part of the Australian character. Generally flags have been imposed from above without reference to the people, but our flag design competition was a world-first initiative. Never before had a national flag been chosen in an open public competition and, at the time, about 1 per cent of the Australian population took the opportunity to help design our flag.
More seriously, Mr Martin repeats the furphy that the rules of the competition required entrants to include a Union Jack in their design. If he chooses to consult the 1901 Government Gazette (reproduced on our website at www.australianflag.org.au), he will find no such stipulation. In fact the 60 Minutes camera panned over a publication illustrating the incredible diversity of designs submitted, many without the Union Jack - as one historian noted, these featured "every kind of flora and fauna identifiable with Australia - sometimes all at once!”. We are also told that "among the more quirky designs were a kangaroo leaping through the constellation of the Southern Cross, a scene depicting native animals playing cricket with a winged cricket ball, a six-tailed kangaroo representing the six Australian states, and a kangaroo aiming a gun at the Southern Cross …"
Ray Martin describes our national symbol as “this silly little flag”, but if it is to be the subject of debate then at the very least we should ensure that Australians are given accurate information about its unique story. He did concede during his Anzac Day angst session that our flag has served us well, then adds “but we’re a very different country now, a different people, and we live in very different times …”
Of course Australia has changed since 1901, and will continue to keep changing. However, a flag is meant to be an enduring symbol for the nation, not something that changes with the latest fashion or in line with passing trends. If we need to change our flag every time Australia changes, then where do we draw the line? Do we run a new flag up the flagpole every few years?
It is significant that while the Ausflag representatives were careful not to disclose their preferred alternative to the current flag, the 60 Minutes program did include an interview with a “corporate brand consultant” who had developed a new design. Obviously Martin sees changing the flag as just another “product re-launch opportunity”, with the new corporate logo showcasing how trendy we are.
In contrast, Professor Geoffrey Blainey, speaking about the flag’s centenary in 2001, said “The critics of Australia's flag - not the flag - have been found wanting. … Contrary to the critics, the flag of a modern nation is never meant to be an up-to-date information sheet. Otherwise we would often be redesigning it. … ”
One of Ray Martin’s fellow Ausflag directors argued on 60 Minutes that “If we have a flag where something like half the population aren't for it, it's broke. We need to come up with a symbol where we're all for it …”
Well, all reliable evidence shows that an overwhelming majority of Australians support our current flag, with opinion polls revealing that only one in five would consider changing it. So obviously under Ausflag’s definition our flag is not “broke” - but more importantly, if they want to scrap our current flag they must demonstrate that there is an alternative symbol that we are “all for”.
It is rather mischievous for Ray Martin to ask us to tear down our flag without telling us what he would replace it with - perhaps secretly he hopes that instead of the Union Jack our national symbol will feature a Gold Logie?