• Australia fans waves flags during day one of the Fifth Investec Ashes Test at The Oval, London.. Picture date: Thursday August 20, 2015. (PA Wire)
Australians love to show the flag, but what does the presence of the Union Jack say about the place of multicultural backgrounds in our national identity?
By
Tim Watts

9 Sep 2015 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 10 Sep 2015 - 11:31 AM

In a uniquely Australian fashion, we’re more likely to wear our flag on caps and capes, t-shirts and thongs, rather than fly it on a flagpole. And why not? Most of us love our country and enjoy celebrating our national pride.

National symbols matter. They are the prism through which the rest of the world sees Australia and through which we see each other. They tell us what it means to be Australian. But what does our most important national symbol, our national flag say about us? In many ways, our flag reflects the country we once were, not the nation we have become today.  

The Australian flag was first flown in September 1901 at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, then the seat of the federal Parliament. The flag was the subject of an international competition with five entrants splitting the prize for near identical designs. Explaining the winning design, the judges thought it apparent that a Commonwealth flag, to be representative, should contain the Union Jack.

The flag encapsulated a conception of Australian identity that was remarkably different to that of today. Consider that in June of that year, the Prime Minister in that Parliament, Edmond Barton introduced the Immigration Restriction Act, better known as the White Australia Policy. Asian-Australians who had migrated to Australia had no pathway to citizenship. Indigenous Australians who had been here for tens of thousands of years weren’t even counted in our census.  

We’ve come a long way since then. We’re no longer a colonial outpost set apart from our neighbours and our region. Depending on how you define it, over 10 per cent of all Australians were born in Asia, with many more of Asian descent. China is now our largest trading partner. Japan, Korea and Singapore are also in the top five. Hinduism is our fastest growing religion.

In almost every field you can name, Asian-Australians are thriving on the international stage. Jason Day, the PGA Tour’s hottest player, is of Filipino heritage. This year’s Asian Cup player of the tournament, Massimo Luongo, has Indonesian (and Italian) heritage. Australian Silicon Valley CEO Tan Le has Vietnamese heritage. Terence Tao, winner of the Fields Medal for Mathematics has Chinese heritage. One of our most successful fashion designers, Akira Isogawa, is of Japanese heritage and one of our highest-earning models, Jessica Gomes, has Chinese-Singaporean ancestry.

What does the presence of the Union Jack on our flag say about the place of these successful Australians within our national identity?

A report commissioned by the Australian Council of Learned Academies, ‘Smart Engagement with Asia’, recently highlighted a ‘soft-power deficit’ in the attitudes and understanding of people in Asia towards Australia.  The reality is that when the members of the increasingly wealthy and influential middle-classes of Asia look to Australia, they see the Queen as our head of state and the Union Jack on our flag and see the Australia of the past, not the modern, multicultural, Southeast Asian nation we have become. Our national symbols encourage our neighbours to see successful Australians from multicultural backgrounds as exceptions to Australian identity, rather than representatives of it.

Australia has opened itself up to the world over the previous 40 years and has benefitted from it tremendously. Few would say that we are not a far greater nation today than we were in the times of Edmund Barton.  If we can recognise this change, we can also recognise a need to update our national symbols to reflect the nation we have become.

New Zealand is currently debating whether to drop the Union Jack from their flag and adopt a new flag, a process that has catalysed genuine civic engagement about New Zealand’s national identity. The government panel running this process recently said in an open letter that ‘a great flag is timeless and communicates swiftly and potently the essence of the country it represents… It should speak to all Kiwis. Our hope is that New Zealanders will see themselves reflected in these flags’ symbols, colour and story’.

We hope that on a future National Flag Day we will be able to celebrate an Australian flag that does the same for our nation.

Labor MP Tim Watts is the Federal Member for Gellibrand and co-author with Clare O’Neil of Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment, available now at bookshops (Text Publishing).