THE NATIONAL FLAG OF AUSTRALIA
 


 
UNDER THE SOUTHERN CROSS
 

The national flag of Australia is a British Blue Ensign with a representation of the Southern Cross constellation in the fly and a seven-pointed "Commonwealth Star" under the Union Jack canton. This flag is a derivative of the ubiquitous colonial ensigns that were introduced during the heyday of the British Empire, most of which were based on the British Blue Ensign with a badge or device in the fly to identify the colony. They were intended specifically for the use of colonial government authorities, not as civil flag for use by the population. In some cases a Red Ensign with the badge added might also be authorized, this for use by merchant vessels registered in the colony. The flag for the governor of a colony was usually the Union Jack with the colonial badge centered on it within a garland of laurel leaves.

The Australian flag achieved its present form in 1909 and has remained unchanged since then. Following British tradition, Australia has three flags of nationality: the Blue Ensign, serving as the national flag, the government ensign and the naval jack; the Red Ensign, serving as the civil ensign; and the White Ensign, serving as the naval ensign. Elizabeth II as Queen of Australia has a personal flag and the Governor-General of Australia has a flag of the pattern introduced in 1936 for that office in Commonwealth countries where the Queen is head of state. Australia also recognizes some other flags, most notably the flag of the Aboriginal peoples, as official flags.

Since the end of the Second World War there have been numerous proposals for a new Australian flag, proponents of a change arguing that the current flag is a vestige of colonialism that does not truly reflect the national identity. Some of these proposals are illustrated below.
 



 

FIRST FLAGS OVER AUSTRALIA

 

Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie Vlag  •  1606

 

THE RED ENSIGN  •  1707-1801

 

THE UNION FLAG  •  1707-1801

 

THE RED ENSIGN  •  SINCE 1801

 

THE UNION FLAG  •  SINCE 1801

The first European flag to appear in Australian waters was the Dutch Princevlag (Prince's Flag), a horizontal orange (later red)-white-blue tricolor, probably including the monogram of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) in black on the white stripe. The Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon made landfall on the coast of the continent in 1606 and he was followed in the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by a number of other Dutch explorers who charted much of Australia's coastline. There were proposals for the establishment of trading posts or colonial settlements in "New Holland" but these were turned down by the VOC, which saw few opportunities for profitable trade with the primitive inhabitants of the country. The British explorer, Captain James Cook, made landfall at Botany Bay (present-day Sydney, New South Wales) in 1770. But only in 1788 was the first permanent colony established, by the British at Botany Bay. Thereafter colonization proceeded rapidly and by the mid-nineteenth century there were a number of separate, self-governing Australian colonies.

The first British flags over Australia were the Union Jack and its derivatives, particularly the Red Ensign. From these were developed the first distinctively Australian flags.


EARLY COLONIAL FLAGS

 

NEW SOUTH WALES ENSIGN  •  1832-83

 

VAN DIEMEN'S LAND ENSIGN  •  1850-75

 

QUEENSLAND ENSIGN  •  1859-70

 

TASMANIAN COLONIAL ENSIGN  •  1875

 

VICTORIA RED ENSIGN  •  1879-1903

 

EUREKA STOCKADE FLAG

A "National Colonial Flag," essentially the British White Ensign with four white stars on the red cross, is said to have been proposed as a flag for Australia in the early 1820s, but its actual existence is doubtful. Only in 1832 did there appear the first in a long line of colonial flags incorporating distinctive Australian elements. This was the ensign adopted by the government of New South Wales: a British White Ensign with the cross changed from red to blue and charged with five eight-pointed white stars representing the Southern Cross, the most prominent constellation visible in the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere. Sometimes called the Australian Ensign, this flag was widely used in local waters despite the fact that it failed to conform to the standard pattern for colonial ensigns laid down by the British Admiralty, which held jurisdiction over such matters. In 1883 the Admiralty prohibited its use, claiming that it was too similar to the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. In the course of the nineteenth century other Australian colonies adopted ensigns, mostly without reference to the Admiralty. Several were obviously based on the White Ensign. The 1875 Tasmanian colonial ensign, incorporating the Southern Cross, lasted only 14 days before the colonial government, realizing that it was unlikely to be approved in London, abolished it. The Blue and Red Ensigns of Victoria, also popular throughout Australia for many years, became with the addition of the six-pointed Commonwealth Star the government and civil ensigns of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1903. Note that the stars of the Southern Cross have varying numbers of points, symbolizing their relative brightness.

Quite different in origin was the Eureka Stockade Flag, famously associated with the 1851-54 labor unrest in the gold fields around Ballarat in the colony of Victoria. This blue flag with its white cross and stars flag flew over the stockade built by striking gold miners. On December 3, 1854, the protests culminated in a violent clash when colonial police backed up by British Army troops stormed the Eureka Stockade. In later years this flag has been proposed as a replacement for the current national flag, based on the claim that the rebellion signaled the birth of an Australian national identity. But the Eureka Rebellion remains politically controversial, its historical significance is disputed, and such proposals have found no favor. The original flag has survived and its remains are on display in the Art Gallery of Ballarat.


TOWARD COMMONWEALTH
 

FEDERATION FLAG  •  1885

 

GOVERNMENT ENSIGN  •  1903-09

 

 CIVIL ENSIGN  • 1903-09

 

GOVERNOR-GENERAL'S FLAG  •  1903-09

Toward the end of the nineteenth century sentiment began to grow for the establishment of a Canadian-style federation uniting the various Australian colonies, by now six in number. The New South Wales/Australian Ensign of 1832 was revived as the Federation Flag, with five-pointed stars and a lighter shade of blue for the cross. When the Commonwealth of Australia was created in 1901, this flag was widely, albeit unofficially, used as the national flag of the new polity. In 1902 Australian Prime Minister Edmund Barton submitted it as an alternative to the winning design in the Commonwealth flag competition (which had attracted over 15,000 entries). It was summarily rejected in London since it did not conform to standard British practice. However, the Federation Flag remained popular and continued to be used for several years.

The winning design, officially adopted in 1903, was the Victoria Blue Ensign with a large, six-pointed Commonwealth Star, symbolizing the six states, added beneath the Union Jack canton. A matching Red Ensign for use by merchant vessels was adopted at the same time. (Australian naval vessels flew the British White Ensign until 1967, when the current ensign was adopted.) Technically the Australian Blue Ensign was reserved for government use and Australian Red Ensign was reserved for merchant shipping, but the latter came to be used on land by private citizens, sometimes in conjunction with the Union Jack and sometimes on its own. This practice continued until the passage of the Flags Act 1953, which established the Australian Blue Ensign as the national flag.

As the British monarch's representative, the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia flew a Union Jack defaced with a badge consisting of the Commonwealth Star surmounted by a crown within a laurel wreath, the whole on a white field with a narrow gold border. (in 1909 the star became seven pointed—see below.)


THE AUSTRALIAN FLAG TODAY
 

NATIONAL FLAG

 

CIVIL ENSIGN

 

ABORIGINAL FLAG

 

H.M. THE QUEEN'S PERSONAL FLAG

 

GOVERNOR-GENERAL'S FLAG

In 1909 the Australian Blue and Red Ensigns were modified. The Commonwealth Star acquired a seventh point, symbolizing the various territories of Australia, and the four large stars of the Southern Cross were all made seven pointed. The Governor-General's flag was also modified to give the Commonwealth Star seven points. The ensigns, thus modified, have remained unchanged up to the present day. The Governor-General's flag was replaced in 1936 when a standardized design for that office was introduced: blue with the Royal Crest over a scroll bearing the name of the country. In 1962 a flag was introduced for Elizabeth II's use in her capacity as Queen of Australia. Within an ermine border it displays the arms of the six Australian states and a Commonwealth Star charged with her crowned initial. This flag is only used when the Queen is present on Australian soil or on board an Australian ship. No other members of the Royal Family have a constitutional position in Australia; thus there are no flags for them.

The Flags Act 1953 made the Australian Blue Ensign the national flag of the Commonwealth of Australia and since that time a number of other flags have been designated as official flags of Australia under the Act. Prominent among them is the Aboriginal Flag: horizontal stripes of black and red charged with a golden yellow disk. This flag was designed by the Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas in 1971. Black represents the Aboriginal people of Australia, red represents the red earth and yellow represents the Sun. The flag's designation as an official flag of Australia in 1995 caused some controversy. Critics charged that it was a divisive gesture while on the other hand Thomas himself said that his flag, which had come to be embraced by Aboriginal Australians, required no official recognition. Despite these objections the designation went forward and was reconfirmed in 2008. The colors of the Aboriginal Flag, or the flag itself, figure in many of the proposals for a new Australian national flag that have been offered over the years  (see below).


SOME PROPOSALS FOR A NEW AUSTRALIAN FLAG
 

1956 REPUBLICAN SOCIALIST LEAGUE PROPOSAL

 

ABORIGINAL COMBINATION PROPOSAL

 

1993 A CURRENT AFFAIR CONTEST WINNER
DESIGNED BY DAVID COUZENS

 

1999 DESIGN BY PETER MARWICK
 

 

2000 AUSFLAG PROFESSIONAL DESIGN COMPETITION
WINNING DESIGN BY FRANCK GENTIL

In the years following World War II the evolution of a specifically Australian national consciousness, independent of the British connection, became a factor in culture and politics. This was reflected in a growing movement for the adoption of a new national flag. Advocates for a new flag argued that the Australian Blue Ensign with its Union Jack canton was a reminder of the colonial past and did not properly symbolize the modern nation. One of the earliest proposals for a new flag was that of the Republican Socialist League of Australia: the deletion of the Union Jack and its replacement with the Commonwealth Star. Another proposal, dating from the 1980s, was to replace the Union Jack with the Aboriginal Flag. This design became popular with groups advocating the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of an Australian republic.

Perhaps inevitably, the push for a new flag became entangled with other contentious political issues. There has always been considerable overlap between those calling for a new Australian flag and those calling for an Australian republic; on the other hand, monarchists tend to favor the retention of the current flag. In 1999 the question of a republic was put to Australians in a national referendum. It was widely expected that the republican side would prevail and that this would lead to the adoption of a new flag for the Republic of Australia. But to the surprise of many Australians voted to retain the monarchy—a setback also for proponents of a new flag. The push for a new flag was renewed in 2000 when Australia hosted the Olympic Games and again in 2001 when the country celebrated the centenary of the Commonwealth. But while support for the existing flag was strong, there was no general agreement on the other side about a replacement design. This remains the situation today and it appears unlikely that Australia will adopt a new national flag any time soon.

Over the years there have been scores of Australian flag proposals, some surpassingly ugly but others quite attractive. Many are based on the Australian national colors, green and gold. One interesting proposal is David Couzens' 1993 design, a vertical tricolor combining green and gold with black from the Aboriginal Flag and retaining the Southern Cross. Many proposals, such as Peter Marwick's 1999 design, incorporate that most familiar Australian symbol, the kangaroo. See here for some additional Australian flag proposals.



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