A racist flag?

November 17, 1993

Graham Matthews

Since its adoption as the national flag in 1901, the Australian flag has stood for colonialism, racism and militarism. So it was no coincidence that the anti-Lebanese rioters at Sydney's Cronulla beach last December draped themselves in the Australian flag as they beat, kicked, and threw beer bottles at anyone who looked Middle Eastern. Neither was it a coincidence that Pauline Hanson, founder of the racist One Nation party, chose to promote herself as "the mother of the nation" wrapped in the flag.

The first Australian flag was introduced by Prime Minister Edmund Barton in September 1901. It was chosen from among more than 32,000 popular entries in a national flag competition.

No debate, nor vote, was taken by parliament to adopt the Australian national flag. The initial design incorporated a six-pointed federation star, immediately below the British Union Jack, which adorns the top left corner of the Australian flag. In 1909, the federation stars points were increased to seven to recognise the colonial annexation of the territory of Papua (now part of Papua New Guinea) — a long-held demand of the Queensland government. In 1911, with the formation of the ACT and Northern Territory, the seventh point was deemed to signify all Australian territories.

Since it came into being, the Australian flag has been associated with state-sanctioned racism. Among the first decisions of the new parliament was the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, 1901. While framed to exclude the insane, prostitutes and criminals, the act's real purpose was to enforce the White Australia policy. Those wanting to immigrate to Australia could be forced to sit a dictation test in a European language — any European language set by an immigration officer. This device was used to stop non-whites from immigrating here. The White Australia policy was only abolished in 1973.

Prior to federation in 1901, Australian states were separate British colonies. Their main flag was that of their colonial master — the Union Jack — under which Indigenous people were driven from their land, poisoned, hunted and corralled into missions. After federation, fair-skinned Aboriginal children were stolen from their parents and wages of Aboriginal workers were withheld.

Aboriginal people were denied rights afforded to other Australians until a special referendum conferred them citizenship in 1967. But even now, Indigenous Australians are second-class citizens in their own land, with standards of living, health and life expectancy more akin to those of most in the Third World.

In 1915, Australian troops embarked on their first military adventure as a national army. Their first campaign was a failed attempt to invade Turkey at Gallipoli. In subsequent conflicts, the Australian flag has led troops into numerous imperial adventures — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomon Islands. With the partial exception of Australia's involvement in stopping the TNI's carnage in East Timor in 1999, the Australian flag has traditionally been used to rally nationalist sentiment either for imperialist wars of aggression against countries struggling for national liberation, or wars to defend colonial possessions (such as Papua New Guinea during World War II).

It's perhaps for some of these reasons that the Australian flag isn't that popular today. Brendan Jones, director of Ausflag, was quoted in the January 28 Sydney Morning Herald, saying the current flag is only supported by 50% of Australians.

"Support for the Australian flag peaked in the early 1960s at about 70%", Jones explained. "Since then, support has declined steadily at an average of one half of one percentage point each year.

"Ausflag has always been aware that the Union Jack in the corner could be used as a cultural and racist wedge, a means by which white, Anglo Australians could remind everyone else that 'You are not, and will never be, considered truly Australian'."

The Cronulla riots demonstrated this graphically.

Throughout its history, the Australian flag has been used to promote an exclusive white Australian nationalism. Even while flying over multicultural Australia, its message is that Australia, fundamentally, remains a white, Anglo-Celtic outpost in South-East Asia and that refugees and many non-white immigrants need not apply for membership.

In this context, it's not surprising then that the initiative by the socialist youth organisation Resistance to sell flag-burning kits has taken off.

"Given the Howard government's attack on our right to speak out and to dissent, burning the Australian flag is one way we have of dramatising our opposition to this", Melbourne Resistance organiser Brianna Pike told Green Left Weekly. "The kit was inspired by Resistance member Azlan McLennan's artwork Proudly Un-Australian, which was censored by police", Pike said.

"The flag-burning kit campaign is a way of highlighting our total opposition to the government's racist and nationalist policies — including its refugee and war policies, and its treatment of Australia's Indigenous people. The Australian flag is not a unifying flag. It does not represent the majority of working people's aspirations for decent working conditions and wages as, for instance, the Eureka flag does, and nor does it acknowledge the original inhabitants as the Aboriginal flag does.

"It is a flag for the ruling elite — it is a symbol of racist nationalism. It symbolises Australia's slavish willingness to follow the US into imperial wars and to play deputy cop in the Asia-Pacific region. That's why people should be proud to burn it", Pike concluded.

[To get a flag burning kit, or to get in touch with Resistance see page 2.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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