Creating a shared national identity for a modern Australia
How a simple flag can unite a nation.
Why Australia needs a new flag, and how a new flag could forge a unified and proud national identity.
What makes a flag
Suggested replacements or redesigns for the Australian flag have been a regular occurrence for many years in Australia, however very often, the reasons why we should change the flag are never very clearly stated.
Flags started as symbols and banners for the field of battle to help identify friend from foe. Over time flags came to symbolise whole nations and all sorts of political organisations. Over time, elements of good flag design have become understood to include consisting of simple shapes and being easy to distinguish at a distance.
What’s wrong with the current flag?
The elements that make up the Australian flag have very little to do with Australia. In one corner there is the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, on the right is the southern cross, a constellation visible across the entire southern hemisphere and featured in many national flags apart from our own. The only other element on the flag is the Commonwealth star, representing Federation, it’s the only part of our flag that is uniquely Australian.
Like many countries the modern nation of Australia was founded by the British Empire, and as part of that colonial history our flag includes the Union Jack in the corner. While that history is a significant part of Australian history it hasn’t always been a positive history, and it’s very far from a uniquely Australian history.
Unlike many countries, Australia never had a violent revolution or defining moment of independence, the closest moment Australia has is the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901. But even then Australia wasn’t completely independent, the highest court in Australia was the privy council in the United Kingdom for many decades. Australian citizenship didn’t even exist separately from British citizenship until 1949. The current Australian flag, adopted in 1901, represents an Australia inhabited by British citizens, living in a country still subordinate to a distant British Empire. The Australian identity has been a gradual one, forged over time and as an Australian identity has formed, our flag should reflect that.
Representing Australia is an essential function of the Australian flag and any representation of Australia should be inclusive not divisive, promoting unity and belonging not exclusion. The current flag fails at this. It fails to represent the original inhabitants of Australia, and fails to represent the many Australians with no ties to the United Kingdom at all. Every citizen should be able to look at their flag and feel a sense of belonging and pride. A symbol of their nation should not exclude them, or symbolise controversial moments of the past.
A flag is supposed to be a representation of it’s country, however the Australian flag is easily confused with flags of many other countries. The Union Jack has featured on the flags of 27 other countries or colonies and the southern cross on 4. The blue, red, and white colours of the Australian flag are the most common colours for national flags in the world.
This similarity isn’t just an aesthetic problem, flags were originally created to help uniquely identify different armies. Even in the modern day flags and derived symbols of the flag are used to easily identify the nation a soldier, ship, or aircraft hails from. When performing joint operations together with allies or fighting against enemies, having a distinct flag or symbol is very helpful. Yet Australia’s flag is almost identical to New Zealand, and shares many similarities to our other allies the United Kingdom, and the United States. Having a distinctly Australian flag would help create a distinctive internationally recognised symbol for our country.
Even ignoring the usefulness of a unique flag in a military context, identifying your country’s sports team in a crowd is so hard with our current flag we don’t even use our flag as our national sports colours. Almost every Australian sports team or Olympic uniform has the green and gold colours that our athletes and teams wear to represent our country. How bad is our flag that even our sports teams don’t use it on the international stage? Instead imagine an athlete that just won a marathon wearing the green and gold uniform and was waving the green and gold flag of Australia. Or the green and gold Australian flag at the top of a flag pole outside the United Nations, impossible to confuse with the flag of any other nation of the world.
What if I don’t think Australia should be a republic?
Conversations about changing the Australian flag is very often linked or associated with Australia becoming a republic. However, a better flag doesn’t need to come with a republic. Several countries have changed their flag independently of any change to their political system, including Canada, a former British colony. A flag is about representing the views and identity of its nation, not its political system, or who it’s head of state is.
What does a better Australian flag look like?
This is the Golden Wattle flag. A flag that represents so many different aspects of Australian identity, it’s pre-colonial past, sporting customs, military traditions, and the land itself. It’s a symbol that all Australians from all walks of life can identify with.
The most obvious symbol of the flag represents the wattle blossom, a flower whose hundreds of different species are almost completely exclusive to Australia. The wattle features in many parts of Australian history, in the past used by many aboriginal Australians for tools or decoration, placed with fallen Australian soldiers before burial, or used in recent times as a symbol of national solidarity in times of crisis. The wattle is also used in a lot of current Australian symbols, like the Australian coat of arms featuring a wattle wreath in the background, or the Order of Australia medal, the highest honour an Australian civilian can receive, featuring the golden wattle. Even Australia’s national flower is the golden wattle.
The second symbol found in the flag is the Commonwealth Star made from the negative space of the wattle flower. The Commonwealth Star has been a symbol representing the federation of Australia since the formation of the nation. Six of the seven points of the star represent each of the original states of Australia, and the seventh point represents the Australian territories and it’s future states. This star is the only symbol found on the current flag that is uniquely Australian, and is also found in our coat of arms, and the badges of the Australian Federal Police and Australian Defence Force.
The last element of the Golden Wattle flag is the colours. It only makes sense that the national flag of Australia includes the national colours of Australia. The Australian green and gold represent our nation much more uniquely than blue, red, and white ever could (that’s why green and gold are the colours of our national sport uniforms). It is only fitting that the green and gold of our national colours were inspired by the Australian golden wattle that this flag uses as it’s primary symbol.
What makes a good flag?
There are several aspects to a flag that make a flag good or bad.
Good flag design
There are a few simple guidelines for designing or choosing a good flag. A flag isn’t a coat of arms or drawing. It should be something made of simple clear shapes and colours that can be easily identified at a distance. It shouldn’t have gradients or text, if a child couldn’t easily draw it, or it couldn’t fit on a postage stamp, it probably isn’t a good flag.
This is important for discerning a flag at a distance, or when only part of the flag can be seen. This is also helpful when the flag is significantly shrunk down and used to represent a country, in these cases it is important to be able to tell different flags apart.
Good flag symbolism
Being made of a limited number of simple shapes is important not just to make it easier to identify. A nation’s flag becomes a part of a nation’s identity. The United States is known for it’s ‘stars and stripes’ taken from their flag, or the Canadian maple leaf. The Golden Wattle is a design that can easily be repurposed for many different uses; from sporting iconography, government and military logos and symbols, to medals, or even tattoos. Drapes of Australian green and gold are never going to be confused with the identical colours of all of our international friends and allies. The golden wattle surrounding the Commonwealth Star is a symbol that could be used for all sorts of official and unofficial national symbols and designs, this reusability is important for helping all Australians be invested in their national identity.
What about other symbols or flag ideas?
When talking about what a new Australian flag should be, it’s important to also talk about what it shouldn’t be.
The Southern Cross is not unique to Australia, it is a constellation in the night sky visible all over the southern hemisphere and even parts of the Northern hemisphere. Because of this many other countries have ended up with this in their flag, including New Zealand, Brazil, and Samoa. When the same symbol is shared by so many diverse countries, it’s difficult to see how such a symbol represents Australia or it’s values.
Union Jack and it’s colours
The Union Jack should not be found on an Australian flag. Having the flag of a foreign (if friendly) nation on our flag can never adequately represent Australia or Australians. Even without the Union Jack itself, it’s colours too have little to do with Australia or our national identity. These are the same colours that are also found on the overwhelming majority of flags of other nations. They’re such common colours that Australia has been using green and gold instead as it’s sport colours since 1899.
Using the aboriginal flag or colours and elements of the flag in a new Australian flag is a fairly common idea, often used to include aboriginal Australians in the flag design. However the purpose of the aboriginal flag is to represent aboriginal Australians and aboriginal identity. An Australian flag needs to represent all Australians, aboriginal, colonial, and recent settlers. The aboriginal flag is an important symbol for aboriginal Australians and belongs to them, not all Australians. And an Australian flag needs to represent all people of Australia, something the aboriginal flag cannot do.
The golden wattle, the primary symbol of the new flag, includes all Australians, it’s a flower unique to our continent and it’s inhabitants, aboriginal and settlers alike.
Creating an Australian identity for an Australian future
A flag should be a symbol for unity for all Australians, no one should feel excluded by a symbol that represents their nation. A flag should represent a nation, not the empire that founded it. A new flag for Australia and Australians, that Australians would be proud to compete under and fight for can be an important part of creating a solid foundation for a shared Australian identity.
Just as anglophone and francophone Canadians found a common identity under their own flag that represented them, not their colonial history, Australia should adopt an Australian flag that represents our nation; from indigenous Australians who settled here over 60 thousand years ago, colonial Australians who settled here over 200 years ago, to new Australians who only just arrived in our nation, still finding their Australian identity.
Credit to the Golden Wattle flag design and images goes to http://www.goldenwattleflag.com/