Celebrating Australia’s National Flag
3 September 2022
One of the truly unique stories of Australia’s National Flag is that it was designed by public competition.
In 1901, there were around 33,000 entrants that answered Prime Minister Edmund Barton’s advertisement for a National Flag in the government Gazette.
Today, that equates to almost 230,000 participants – an astonishing level of participation, especially in a non-digital age.
A diverse cast of five, which even included a schoolboy, an architect, and an 18-year-old female artist, emerged as combined winners due to their virtually identical designs.
It is a great example of positive ‘diversity’ and, at the same time, a shared concept from a highly unique cast of Australians.
Since 1902, the Flag has endured as Australia’s peak national symbol – from the war-ravaged Western Front to the tranquility of schoolyards, cultural ceremonies, and sporting events across the country.
Indeed, over a century later, on September 3, we continue to honour the day the first Flag was flown at the Royal Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne – our then de-facto capital prior to 1908.
At the time, the Flag replaced the ‘red ensign’, which we still see today on boats and maritime vessels. ‘A blue flag on land’, to paraphrase Prime Minister Menzies, ‘and red at sea’.
But celebrations also invite questions, the most prominent being, ‘Will the next generation sustain its enthusiasm for the Flag?’
There are positive reasons to think so.
First, the Flag has obvious appeal on Australia Day, where many young Australians celebrate national achievement in ways important to them.
At national and international sporting events we also see the Flag deployed in celebratory display. While the cut and thrust of a sporting arena doesn’t always invite tender pause or deep reflection these moments show, in a broad sense, young Australians enthusiastic about their country and enjoying their freedom.
In other ways, a healthy patriotism among young Australians is not, in the words of the late former Governor General Paul Hasluck, ‘a showy, crackling, flamboyant bit of display. It is something quiet and deep inside ourselves’.
Our affection to country and the Flag can be a much more subtle patriotic exercise. For example, one sees a sense of national spirit coming down the generations when seeing young Australians spending their summer hiking the Kokoda Track. Or in places like Gallipoli and France, tracing similar steps where Australia’s national character was formed, and our Flag proudly flown.
Australia’s defence men and women have also spent the last two decades flying the Flag while undertaking expeditionary duties overseas, from the remote hills of central Asia to the islands of the South Pacific. Many of these servicemen and women are core constituents of Australia’s next generation. The average age in the Army, for example, is 25.
As increasing numbers of young Australians travel and find work overseas – military or not – an attachment and sentiment for Australia will grow – something we have seen over the past two years in particular.
We must also remember that it was in fact a young man – Ivor Evans – a 14-year-old school boy – who was one of the five winners of the 1901 competition.
‘Ultimately, our flag serves as a potent symbol of our nation,’ noted Sir Peter Cosgrove recently. ‘One nation, of many backgrounds, but ultimately united together by shared values and ideals and a respect for each other and the diversity that is the very essence of who we are.’
Australians have created a history to be proud of.
The Flag is a symbolic recognition of this and, I suspect, it will continue to find broad reception with younger Australians and indeed all Australians in the years to come.
These remarks are adapted from a speech given at the Caboolture Historical Village, celebrating Australian National Flag Day, on 3 September 2022. Sean Jacobs writes at www.seanjacobs.com.au.