Labor MP Tim Watts has recently emerged as Australia’s leading anti-flag spokesman. His thoughts echo those of a thin group of flag-changers occasionally emerging to propose amendments to Australia’s pinnacle national symbol.
The motivation is both predictable and simple – because Australia has changed we must change the flag. ‘In many ways,’ Watts recently wrote in an SBS opinion piece, ‘our flag reflects the country we once were, not the nation we have become today.’
To look at Australia this way, however, commits to poor thinking and vastly simplifies how Australia is seen within our region. It also fails to acknowledge the role of Indigenous Australia in our nation’s chief national symbol.
Watts points out that in 1901 – the year the flag was first flown – Prime Minister Edmund Barton also introduced the Immigration Restriction Act, better known as the White Australia Policy. ‘Asian Australians who had migrated to Australia had no pathway to citizenship’, writes Watts. ‘Indigenous Australians who had been here for tens of thousands of years weren’t even counted in our census.’ From these comments it’s tempting to think that, in the wake of hoisting a new flag, our foreign relations soured and perceptions in Asia declined.
Yet the reality is much more nuanced. In 1905 Barton himself, for instance, received Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun for mediatinga solution as part of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. Japanese officers, incredibly, paraded in front of 40,000 spectators at Centennial Park, with the Sydney Morning Herald writing that the northern visitors were ‘not strangers, but allies and friends.’ As the late Geoffrey Bolton observed of Barton’s Japanese accolade, ‘It was a curious distinction for the architect of the White Australia policy.’
This small example is not a defence of the Immigration Restriction Act. But it does show that Australia’s history, in real terms, is much more sophisticated than the monolithic production it has been made out to be. There are literally countless examples, from the Gold Rush to the Colombo Plan, where we have proactively engaged in Asia without the ‘soft power deficit’ that many claim our colonial heritage evokes with our northern neighbours.
The region, I feel, understands and respects our unique inheritance from a cold group of islands in the North Atlantic. But Watts feels this legacy actually blunts our reputation. ‘When the members of the increasingly wealthy and influential middle-classes of Asia look to Australia,’ he writes, ‘they see the Queen as our head of state and the Union Jack on our flag and see the Australia of the past, not the modern, multicultural, Southeast Asian nation we have become.’
Yet I suspect the masses of Asia, who are mostly not ‘wealthy’ or ‘influential’, do not endlessly ponder our national symbols. If anything, with more common sense than people like Watts give them credit for, they’re likely to sense and appreciate tradition, stability, decent institutions, rule of law and a nation sacrificing in faraway places to honour commitments and protect its values.
Certainly, Australia’s demographics have changed. But the flag is the reason why, in more modern and commercially-driven times, we’ve continued to attract millions of immigrants, students and tourists. Our success, to be sure, is because of the flag – not in spite of it.
Finally, Watts claims that black Australia has no stake in the current flag. In his recent book Two Futures, for example, he proposes that the Australian flag is ‘anachronistic, and it fails to represent both our Indigenous heritage and independence of our contemporary democracy.’ It’s clear that Watts simply doesn’t know the Southern Cross has significant status in Aboriginal mythology as, for example, the legend of Mululuof the Kanda tribe.
It has been said that history is to nations what character is to people. By tarnishing the flag we tarnish our tradition and legacy, which doesn’t belong to a certain race or demographic but to all Australians. Calls for an ‘update’ to our chief national symbol should be treated with caution, especially when proponents have not bothered to consult history or appreciate the details.