There’s no enduring flaw in our nation that says we’re incapable of imagining – in time, in our way – a flag that is instantly recognized as ours at home and around the world.
We’ve had a conversation about more inclusive national symbols ourselves before and others have too. Fifty years ago, Canada did so with enviable success. I look at the subsequent history of national unity there, triumphing over linguistic and cultural separatism, and wonder how much difference their new flag might have made.
In New Zealand, they’re debating whether the silver fern or another special symbol may soon fly in the “Beehive” parliament as well as at the “Cake Tin” rugby ground. Canada and New Zealand are ethnically diverse nations like our own. They know you need a flag for everyone.
A flag of our own and an Australian republic are not more important than economic policy but that does not make them peripheral issues. They go to the core of how we carry ourselves in Asia and how we imagine our future. Before he sold his soul to the conservatives, Malcolm Turnbull once understood this too.
Australia’s is a practical political style but it isn’t always a sign of limited ambitions or imagination. It rightly recognises economic growth for the nation and jobs for the people as core responsibilities of its elected representatives.
But growing estrangements and divisions in our democracy prevent a proper conversation about our national symbols. Today’s discord is not just the tragedy of both Hockey Budgets, but also the tragedy of Tony Abbott’s “Australian peerage”. And not just that the symbol of is old-fashioned, though it was; or elitist, though it was that too; the real problem was the symbol is so divisive.
These sharpening partisan differences are feeding a growing dissonance between our present system and symbols and the nation we are becoming.
For the long term, we do have to make time, and take time, to discuss the culture of our democracy – in particular the renewal of our national symbols including a republic and our flag, while advancing constitutional recognition of the original Australians.
As an outer suburban representative, I don’t see all this as an indulgence or a conversation-starter at a fancy dinner. As a pragmatic, grass-roots new MP, I wouldn’t enter the debate if I didn’t believe it mattered.
Consider two questions. One, does anyone think we can best symbolize our future self with the crown in our constitution and the Union Jack on our flag? Then two, should we renew our symbols so that they show that we govern ourselves, and for each other?
The way I see it, Parliamentary politics is more than a contract, where the people send us to do a job and ask us to report back every three years.
We have to lead, but always leading within our communities. This is a key difference between a proper democracy and an elective system of time-limited technocratic elites: the fact that all 23 million of us, including the 150 representatives who meet in the People’s House, are part of one Commonwealth.
The key is to be capable of agreeing to disagree on the policy questions at stake, while refusing to unnecessarily divide into unmovable progressive and conservative tribes.
We’ve done it before. In the 1940s we created Australian citizenship, separate from being “British subjects”. In the 1930s, we decided the Governor-General should be an Aussie. They were Labor decisions but they prevailed, in time, because the nation came together, and came with us.
Today, by contrast, our conversation about the flag is hostage to shibboleths at home and constitutional developments overseas. Consider how truly absurd it would have been if just 200,000 Scots had switched from Yes to No and Scotland had left the UK, taking St Andrew’s Cross (the white part of the Union Jack) with them. Does anyone know what our flag would have been the day after? A year after?
Our nation’s proud military heritage should not be a football in this discussion. In the ANZAC Centenary we are in now, I hope we will see our flag fly proudly alongside the other flags our patriots marched under. Yes the blue ensign; the red ensign too; the flags of their states; wonderful flags made by recruiting marches, bearing the names of the cities and towns they had come from, flags they carried for miles.
Some of the bravest – including a lot of the women – went under the Red Cross. And some of our diggers marched under the Union Jack too. We revere them all and we should remember every last bit of their sacrifice.
No one speaks for our war dead. The tragedy of their lives and ours is that they never lived to tell us how to live without them. As a nation, all we can do is govern ourselves. This is why I believe we should update our symbols in a way that reflect the nation as it is, and as it is becoming, and in a way that bring us together as a whole.
The Union Jack was given a quarter of our national flag at a time when the overwhelming number of Australians were born under it or had parents born under it. If you shrank the size of the Union Jack as the UK-born part of our population shrank, today it would look like a postage stamp in the corner of a very big blue envelope.
The British flag is a great flag – for Britain. And of course, like every other patriotic Australian, I’m moved by the sight of our flag flying. But can we do better?
My point is that when conservatives and progressives get to debating our national symbols let’s not just rumble it out between their old patriotism of the 1950s and our old nationalism of the 1890s. Let’s try to come together to consider and renew our symbols so that they represent the national sentiments of the people as a whole.
Let’s talk about symbols which could connect us to our future. Let’s talk about a republic and new constitutional arrangements to recognize our indigenous heritage and our place in Asia, and a new flag which represents us all. Let’s have a sensible conversation about it, because this is a discussion sensible democracies can have, have had, and are having.
This opinion piece was originally published on Huffington Post on Tuesday, 22 September 2015.