120 years of our flag

Senator Matt Canavan says the Australian flag represents our nation's history.

OPINION with Senator Matt Canavan

Last week was our flag’s birthday. On 3 September, 1901, the Australian flag was flown for the first time, over the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. Thus beginning the great Australian tradition of denigrating our flag. As The Bulletin magazine then described it:

“… a staled réchauffé of the British flag, with no artistic virtue, no national significance… Australia is still Britain’s little boy. What more natural than that he should accept his father’s cut-down garments … That bastard flag is a true symbol of the bastard state of Australian opinion.“

Now 120 years later our “bastard flag“ has survived. Australian troops have defeated fascism, communism and Islamic terrorism fighting behind it, and, while there are plenty that still cringe at it, there are more that wear it proudly on hats, t-shirts and now face masks too.

Despite its derivative nature our flag’s creation had an intriguing development that is little taught today.

The Southern Cross is the uniquely Australian part of our flag. It was first placed on the National Colonial Flag by Captains John Nicholson and John Bingle in 1823, just 35 years after the arrival of the First Fleet. However, their Southern Cross arrangement was just four stars, all arranged in a cross, rather than the formation we see in the sky.

Their flag was probably the inspiration for the Eureka flag that is still used today. The Eureka rebels dubbed it the ’Australia flag’ and took an oath under it saying, “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.“

While the rebels were defeated by redcoats in 1854, their cause ultimately succeeded in delivering greater democratic rights and the abolition of the mining licence system. Mark Twain called the Eureka rebellion “the finest thing in Australasian history“.

The first flag to represent the southern cross in the arrangement on our flag was made five years before Eureka, and was the flag of Australasian Anti-Transportation League. The stars on this flag are yellow, and it has no Federation star under the Union Jack, but it looks remarkably similar to ours. The Anti-Transportation League campaigned to end the transportation of convicts to Australia. A battle they won when the last convict ship arrived at Fremantle in 1868.

The Federation star on our flag was added to reflect the unification of the six colonies into one nation – it originally had six points and was given a seventh when we acquired Papua New Guinea in 1906.

We beat ourselves up too much on our flag. All flags represent a nation’s history as does ours. That history is one in which we argued to end convict transportation, fought for greater democracy and unified as one nation. Our flag represents all of these important developments.

And our flag today has new resonance when Australians are locked up in their own homes, and locked out from seeing families and loved ones. We are probably back to being closer to a penal colony today than we have been for 150 years.

I don’t believe Australians wish to stay in these prison-like conditions. Once again, we can look to our flag for inspiration to establish freedom and liberty.