Flag of Australia
The flag of Australia was chosen in 1901 from entries in a worldwide design competition held following Federation. It was approved by Australian and British authorities over the next few years, although the exact specifications of the flag were changed several times both intentionally and as a result of confusion. The current specifications were published in 1934, and in 1954 the flag became legally recognised as the "Australian National Flag".
The flag is a defaced Blue Ensign: a blue field with the Union Flag in the canton (upper hoist quarter), and a large white seven-pointed star known as the Commonwealth Star in the lower hoist quarter. The fly contains a representation of the Southern Cross constellation, made up of five white stars – one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars.
The flag of Australia is legally defined in the Flags Act 1953. In addition there are other official flags representing Australia, its people and core functions of government.
The Australian flag uses three prominent symbols, the Union Flag (also known as the Union Jack), the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross (or Crux).
The Union Flag is thought locally to symbolise Australia's history as six British colonies and the principles upon which the Australian Federation is based, although a more historic view sees its inclusion in the design as demonstrating loyalty to the British Empire.
The Commonwealth Star originally had only six points, representing the six federating colonies. However, this changed in 1908 when a seventh point was added to symbolise the Territory of Papua and any future territories. The Commonwealth Star does not have any relation to Beta Centauri, despite that star's coincidental location in the sky and its brightness.
The Southern Cross is one of the most distinctive constellations visible in the Southern Hemisphere and has been used to represent Australia and New Zealand since the early days of British settlement. Ivor Evans, one of the flag's designers, intended the Southern Cross to refer also to the four moral virtues ascribed to the four main stars by Dante: justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. The number of points on the stars of the Southern Cross on today's Australian flag differs from the original competition-winning design, on which they ranged between five and nine points each, representing their relative brightness in the night sky. In order to simplify manufacture, the British Admiralty standardised the four larger outer stars at seven points each, leaving the smaller middle star with five points.
A complete specification for the current design was published in the Commonwealth Gazette in 1934.
Under the Flags Act, the Australian National Flag must meet the following specifications:
- the Union Jack occupying the upper quarter next the staff;
- a large white star (representing the 6 States of Australia and the Territories) in the centre of the lower quarter next the pye and pointing direct to the centre of St George's Cross in the Union Jack;
- 5 white stars (representing the Southern Cross) in the half of the flag further from the staff.
The location of the stars is as follows:
- Commonwealth Star – 7 pointed star, centred in lower hoist.
- Alpha Crucis – 7 pointed star, straight below centre fly 1/6 up from bottom edge.
- Beta Crucis – 7 pointed star, 1/4 of the way left and 1/16 up from the centre fly.
- Gamma Crucis – 7 pointed star, straight above centre fly 1/6 down from top edge.
- Delta Crucis – 7 pointed star, 2/9 of the way right and 31/240 up from the centre fly.
- Epsilon Crucis – 5 pointed star, 1/10 of the way right and 1/24 down from the centre fly.
The outer diameter of the Commonwealth Star is 3/10 of the flag's width, while that of the stars in the Southern Cross is 1/7 of the flag's width, except for Epsilon, for which the fraction is 1/12. Each star's inner diameter is 4/9 of the outer diameter. The flag's width is the measurement of the hoist edge of the flag (the distance from top to bottom).
The colours of the flag, although not specified by the Flags Act, have been given Pantone specifications by the Awards and Culture Branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Australian Government's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers also gives CMYK and RGB specifications for depicting the flag in print and on screen respectively.
The Flags Act ascribes no meaning to the colours.
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1901 Federal Flag Design Composition
Before 1901, Australia was a collection of six British colonies. The Union Flag, as the flag of the British Empire, was often used to represent them collectively, and each colony also had its own flag based on the Union Flag. Two attempts were made throughout the nineteenth century to design a national flag. The first such attempt was the National Colonial Flag created in 1823–1824 (when New South Wales was still the only British colony in Australia), by Captain John Nicholson and Captain John Bingle. The flag never achieved public support. The most popular "national" flag of the period was the 1831 Federation Flag, also designed by Nicholson. The Federation Flag proved immensely popular, and was widely used on the east coast of Australia for over 70 years, particularly by the federation movement. These flags, and many others such as the Eureka Flag (which came into use at the Eureka Stockade in 1854), featured stars representing the Southern Cross. The oldest known flag to show the stars arranged as they are seen in the sky is the Anti-Transportation League Flag, which is similar in design to the present National Flag.
As Federation approached, thoughts turned to an official federal flag. In 1900, the Melbourne Herald conducted a design competition in which entries were required to include the Union Flag and Southern Cross, resulting in a British Ensign style flag. The competition conducted by the Review of Reviews for Australasia later that year thought such a restriction seemed unwise, despite observing that a design without these emblems "might have a small chance of success". After Federation on 1 January 1901, the new Commonwealth Government held an official competition for a new federal flag in April. The competition attracted over 32,000 entries (including many originally sent to the Review of Reviews), equivalent to around 1% of the Australian population at that time. The designs were judged on seven criteria: loyalty to the Empire, Federation, history, heraldry, distinctiveness, utility and cost of manufacture. The majority of designs incorporated the Union Flag and the Southern Cross, but native animals were also popular. Five almost identical entries were chosen as the winning design, and their designers shared the 200 pounds prize money. They were Ivor Evans, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy from Melbourne; Leslie John Hawkins, a teenager apprenticed to an optician from Sydney; Egbert John Nuttall, an architect from Melbourne; Annie Dorrington, an artist from Perth; and William Stevens, a ship’s officer from Auckland, New Zealand. The five winners received 40 pounds each.
The flag's initial reception was mixed. The then republican magazine The Bulletin labelled it:
a staled réchauffé of the British flag, with no artistic virtue, no national significance... Minds move slowly: and Australia is still Britain's little boy. What more natural than that he should accept his father's cut-down garments, – lacking the power to protest, and only dimly realising his will. That bastard flag is a true symbol of the bastard state of Australian opinion.
As the design was basically the Victorian flag with a star added, many critics in both the Federal Government and the New South Wales government objected to the chosen flag for being "too Victorian". They wanted the Australian Federation Flag, and Prime Minister Barton, who had been promoting the Federation Flag, submitted this flag along with that chosen by the judges to the Admiralty for final approval. The Admiralty chose the Red for private vessels and Blue Ensigns for government ships. The Commonwealth government regarded both the Blue and Red Ensigns as colonial maritime flags.
On 3 September 1901, the new Australian flag flew for the first time atop the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne.
A simplified version of the competition-winning design was officially approved as the Flag of Australia by King Edward VII in 1902.
It replaced the Union Flag at the Olympic Games at St Louis in 1904. In the same year, due to lobbying by Senator Richard Crouch, it had the same status as the Union Flag in the UK, when the House of Representatives proclaimed that the Blue Ensign "should be flown upon all forts, vessels, saluting places and public buildings of the Commonwealth upon all occasions when flags are used". The government agreed to fly the Blue Ensign on special flag days, but not if it meant additional expense, which undermined the motion. The Blue Ensign could only be flown on a state government building if a state flag was not available.
Blue or Red Ensign?
The Red Ensign was the only flag private citizens could fly on land. By traditional British understanding, the Blue Ensign would be reserved for Commonwealth Government use, with State and local governments, private organisations and individuals all using the Red Ensign.
In 1908 the Blue Ensign replaced the Union Flag at all military establishments. From 1911 it was the saluting flag of the Australian army at all reviews and ceremonial parades, although when Australia's new Parliament House was opened in 1927, only Red Ensigns and Union Flags were flown.
There was some confusion over military use of the ensigns with the result that prior to 1941 almost 10% of military ensigns were Blue rather than the more common Red Ensigns.
Technically, private non-commercial vessels were liable to a substantial fine if they did not fly the British Red Ensign. However, an Admiralty Warrant was issued on 5 December 1938, authorising these vessels to fly the Australian Red Ensign.
The Shipping Registration Act 1981 reaffirmed that the Australian Red Ensign was the proper "colours" for commercial ships over 24 metres in tonnage length.
As part of the British Empire Australia originally flew the Union Flag. It was the defacto flag of the British Empire, originally established as a Royal flag.
The Royal Australian Navy was promulgated on 5 October 1911 and were directed to fly the British White Ensign on the stern and the Flag of Australia on the Jackstaff. Despite the government wanting to use the Blue Ensign on Australian warships, officers continued to fly the Union Flag, and it was not until 1913, following public protest in Fremantle after its use for the review of the HMAS Melbourne, that the government "reminded" them of the 1911 legislation. The British White Ensign was finally replaced by a distinctively Australian White Ensign on 1 March 1967.
In the 1920s there was debate over whether the Blue Ensign was reserved for Commonwealth buildings only, culminating in a 1924 agreement that the Union Flag should take precedence as the National Flag. As the Union Flag was recognised as the National flag, it was considered disloyal to fly either ensign without the Union flag alongside, and it was the Union Flag that covered the coffins of Australia's war dead.
The Blue Ensign formally replaced the Union Flag on 14 April 1954. The Union Flag was still regarded as the National flag by many Australians well into the 1970s, which inspired Arthur Smout's campaign from 1968 to 1982 to encourage Australians to give the Australian flag precedence.
By the mid-80s the Commonwealth Government no longer reminded Australians they had the right to fly the Union Flag alongside the National Flag or provided illustrations of how to correctly display them together.
Australian National Flag
In 1940 the Victorian government passed legislation allowing schools to purchase Blue Ensigns, which in turn allowed its use by private citizens. Prime Minister Robert Menzies then encouraged private citizens to use the Blue Ensign, issuing a statement the following year allowing Australians to use either ensign.
Prime Minister Ben Chifley issued a similar statement in 1947.
On 4 December 1950, the Prime Minister Robert Menzies proclaimed the Blue ensign as the National flag and in 1951 King George VI approved the Government's recommendation.
South Australia chose to continue with the Union Flag as National flag until 1956, when schools were given the option of using either the Union or Australian flags.
This status was formalised on 14 February 1954, when Elizabeth II gave Royal Assent to the Flags Act 1953. This was the first Australian legislation to receive the monarch's Assent in person, and was timed to coincide with the Queen's visit to the country. The Act confers statutory powers on the Governor-General to appoint 'flags and ensigns of Australia' and authorise warrants and make rules as to use of flags. Section 8 ensures that the 'right or privilege' of a person to fly the Union Flag is not affected by the Act.
In 1998, the Flags Act was amended by stipulating rules for changing the national flag's design; to replace the flag entirely, a referendum must be held – assuming the act is not amended by parliament through the normal processes.
Guidelines for flying the flag are laid out in the 1953 Flags Act and in a pamphlet entitled "The Australian National Flag", which is published by the Australian Government on an infrequent basis. The guidelines say that the Australian National Flag, the Australian Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag are allowed to be flown on every day of the year. The National Flag must always be flown in a position superior to that of any other flag or ensign when flown in Australia or on Australian territory, and it should always be flown aloft and free. The flag must be flown in all government buildings and displayed in polling stations when there is a national election or referendum. Private pleasure craft can fly either the Red Ensign of the Australian National Flag. The British Blue Ensign can be flown on an Australian owned ship instead of the Australian Flag if the owner has a warrant valid under British law.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet also advises that the flag should only be flown during daylight hours, unless it is illuminated. Two flags should not be flown from the same flagpole. When the flag is flown at half-mast, it should be recognisably at half-mast, for example, a third of the way down from the top of the pole. The Australian Flag should never be flown half mast at night. Flags are flown at half-mast on government buildings:
- On the death of the Sovereign – from the time of announcement of the death up to and including the funeral. On the day the accession of the new Sovereign is proclaimed, it is customary to raise the flag to the top of the mast from 11 am.
- On the death of a member of a royal family.
- On the death of the Governor-General or a former Governor-General.
- On the death of a distinguished Australian citizen. Flags in any locality may be flown at half-mast on the death of a notable local citizen or on the day, or part of the day, of their funeral.
- On the death of the head of state of another country with which Australia has diplomatic relations – the flag would be flown on the day of the funeral.
- On ANZAC day the flag is flown at half-mast until noon.
- On Remembrance Day flags are flown at peak until 10:30 am, at half-mast from 10:30 am to 11:03 am, then at peak for the remainder of the day.
The Department provides a subscription-based email service called the Commonwealth Flag Network, which gives information on national occasions to fly the flag at half-mast as well as national days of commemoration and celebration of the flag.
The Australian National Flag may be used for commercial or advertising purposes without formal permission as long as the flag is used in a dignified manner and reproduced completely and accurately; it should not be defaced by overprinting with words or illustrations, it should not be covered by other objects in displays, and all symbolic parts of the flag should be identifiable.
There have been several attempts to make desecration of the Australian flag a crime. In 1953, during the second reading debate on the Flags Act, the leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, unsuccessfully called for provisions to be added to the bill to criminalise desecration. Michael Cobb introduced private member’s bills in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992 to ban desecration, but on each occasion the bill lapsed. In 2002, the leader of the National Party, John Anderson, proposed to introduce laws banning desecration of the Australian flag, a call that attracted support from some parliamentarians both in his own party and the senior Coalition partner, the Liberal Party. However, the Prime Minister, John Howard, rejected the calls stating that "...in the end I guess it's part of the sort of free speech code that we have in this country." In 2003, the Australian Flags (Desecration of the Flag) Bill was tabled in Parliament by Trish Draper without support from Howard and subsequently lapsed.
In 1996, the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, issued a proclamation establishing an annual Australian National Flag Day, to be held on 3 September. Flag Day celebrations had been occurring in Sydney since 1985. They were initiated by the vexillographer John Christian Vaughan to commemorate the first occasion when the Flag was flown in 1901. On Flag Day, ceremonies are held in some major centres, and the Governor-General and some politicians attend or release statements to the media.
Australian National Flag Day is not a public holiday.
On the centenary of the first flying of the flag, 3 September 2001, the Australian National Flag Association presented the Prime Minister with a flag intended to replace the missing original flag. This flag was not a replica of the original flag, on which the Commonwealth Star had only six points, but was a current Australian National Flag with a seven pointed Commonwealth Star. The flag has a special headband, including a cardinal red stripe and the inscription
The Centenary Flag. Presented to the Hon John Howard MP, Prime Minister of Australia on behalf of the people of Australia by the Australian National Flag Association on 3 September 2001 at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne to commemorate the first flying of the Australian National Flag on 3 September 1901 attended by the Rt Hon Sir Edmund Barton MHR, Prime Minister of Australia.
A warrant authorising the use of the Centenary Flag under section 6 of the Flags Act was issued by the Governor-General and the flag is now used as the official flag of state on important occasions.
Other Australian flags
Under Section 5 of the Flags Act 1953, the Governor-General may proclaim flags other than the National Flag and the Red Ensign as flags or ensigns of Australia. Five flags have been appointed in this manner. The first two were the Royal Australian Navy Ensign and the Royal Australian Air Force Ensign, the flags used by the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force. The Australian Army uses the Blue Ensign. The Air Force and the Navy flew the appropriate British ensigns (the White Ensign and the Royal Air Force Ensign) until the adoption of similar ensigns based on the Australian National Flag in 1948 and 1967 respectively. The current Navy and Air Force Ensigns were officially appointed in 1967 and 1982 respectively.
In 1995, the Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag were also appointed flags of Australia. While mainly seen as a gesture of reconciliation, this recognition caused a small amount of controversy at the time, with then opposition leader John Howard describing it as divisive. Some indigenous people, such as the flag's designer Harold Thomas, felt that the government was appropriating their flag, saying it "doesn't need any more recognition".
The Australian Defence Force Ensign was proclaimed in 2000. This flag is used to represent the Defence Force when more than one branch of the military is involved, such as at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and by the Minister for Defence.
The Legislative Instruments Act 2003 required the proclamations of these flags to be lodged in a Federal Register. Due to an administrative oversight they were not, and the proclamations were automatically repealed. The Governor-General issued new proclamations dated 25 January 2008, with effect from 1 January 2008 (or 1 October 2006 in the case of the Defence Force Ensign).
In addition to the seven flags declared under the Flags Act, there are two additional Commonwealth flags, the Australian Civil Aviation Ensign and Australian Customs Flag, eight Vice-Regal flags and nine State and Territory flags that are recognised as official flags through other means.
The flag debate
In connection with the issue of republicanism in Australia there have been low-key but persistent debates over whether or not the Australian flag should be changed in order to remove the Union Flag from the canton. This debate has come to a head at a number of occasions, such as in the period immediately preceding the Australian Bicentenary in 1988, and also during the Prime Ministership of Paul Keating, who publicly supported a change in the flag and was famously quoted as saying:
I do not believe that the symbols and the expression of the full sovereignty of Australian nationhood can ever be complete while we have a flag with the flag of another country on the corner of it.
There are two lobby groups involved in the flag debate: Ausflag, who support changing the flag, and the Australian National Flag Association (ANFA), who want to keep the current flag. The primary arguments for keeping the flag cite historic precedence, while the arguments for changing the flag are based around the idea that the current flag does not accurately depict Australia's status as an independent and multicultural nation.
Ausflag periodically campaigns for flag change in association with national events, like the 2000 Summer Olympics, and holds flag design competitions, while ANFA's activities include promotion of the current design through events like National Flag Day.
Opinion polls show a significant majority of Australians favour no change. A 2004 NEWSPOLL that asked: "Are you personally in favour or against changing the Australian flag so as to remove the Union Jack emblem?" was supported by 32% of respondents and opposed by 57%, with 11% uncommitted.