The issue of the national flag in Australia is something that receives sporadic media attention. I have certain perspectives on it, and I have given it some thought recently after hearing on an Australian (non-mainstream) current-affairs style podcast talk of a rise in the number of people having the southern cross (crux australis) tattooed somewhere on their body. Currently travelling/researching in Canada, I have again pondered the situation here – specifically that there is no union jack on the flag and the status afforded First Nations, Metis, Inuit and other peoples here before European’s. My lack of cultural awareness may be visible as I am not fully aware of the dynamics of the terms used to describe Aboriginal peoples (itself a problematic term) in Canada – and I can’t bring myself to use the term native given its colonialist underpinnings as embodied in Australian usage.
There are a number of people who express that the Aboriginal flag should be/is the only real Australian flag and this perspective is one I randomly come across when a live recording of Xavier Rudd in Colorado (September 17 2004) reaches the top of the shuffle list on my mp3 player. In talking to those there to see him play, Xavier referred to an Aboriginal flag that he had on stage as our national flag. Randomly hearing this over a number of months has afforded some time to dwell on this. I am not 100% certain where I stand on this. Before I comment on why, I need to address some of the defences for the current colonialist flag.
The current flag displayed and promoted as Australia’s national flag has the union jack in the top left corner. For me, the presence of the union jack, in any way and/or representation, in Australia is offensive, racist and inappropriate (to put it mildly). This parallels and is deeply tied to the notion of the national holiday: Australia Day. This day, January 26, commemorates the planting of the union flag (the predecessor to the union jack) in the soil on the east coast of the continent. It was the precursor to systematic murder, still-ongoing attempts at cultural genocide, overt and unmarked racisms, forced dispossession, and a host of other implications of colonialism and Enlightenment notions of progress. That people cannot see the offensiveness of such celebrations is bewildering. Aboriginal, Torres Strait and South Sea Islander peoples in Australia increasingly refer to this as Survival Day in recognition that their cultures are alive and well. In my academic work I recently came across what is perhaps the best academic-speak I have seen to refer to Australia: we live in a (never quite post) colonial society. The colonialist project did not succeed (i.e. firstly in killing them off, secondly attempting breeding them out, and thirdly trying to assimilate Aboriginal peoples) yet is a still ongoing if not as explicit white project.
This contrasts with oft-used defences for the colonialist flag. Statements like men fought and died for/under this flag are often touted. This claim is patently misleading, if not false – yet this is broadly unknown to people in Australia. The current flag was only adopted in 1953 and any nationalist, sentimental or other attachments to it can only be based on the presence of the union jack and are thus predicated on the colonial project – implications of which I have already mentioned. The basis for this and essentially all other arguments put forward for this flag remaining emanate from nationalistic/patriotic notions. It is here (in part) that I also have concerns with adopting the Aboriginal Flag as a national flag.
The broader concern relates to nationalism. My whitee mediated experiences see (hopes?) nationalism as not inherently negative. I do not love my country per se: it has and will always have a special place in me. I am born of it and much of my life, love and happiness emanates from experiences there. I repeatedly have visions of, and compare what I see day to day when I am in another country, the beautiful places I have seen and experienced. Yet can we have a national flag? Can something encompass what we see and experience as Australia. This draws me back to the reference to Canada and the southern cross. The Canadian flag, for me, more-closely represents something Canadian as it draws from something specifically recognisable and emanating from the land (I am open to criticism on this due to my lack of knowledge on the issue). Similarly, the southern cross can do likewise for Australia. To get to my point, I guess, would be that if there is a need for a national flag for Australia it should be the southern cross – with clarification to come.
There are still two significant issues to do with this, the first is based in part on nationalism. Can we be nationalist? Before anything with reference to Australia as a nation, we need to address the ongoing legacies of the continuing colonialist project. We need to recognise the existence of Aboriginal Nations and give up power to allow for self-determination – with all the necessary support provided – no matter how uncomfortable it makes us (and it will). Based on such recognition we can then start to work together for mutual benefit on (increasingly, but never quite?) equal grounds. In line with this (again in part) I do not think that post-invasion Australians can fall under the Aboriginal flag as we have not faced the systematic oppressions that Aboriginal peoples in Australia have – analogous to men never being able to fully understand the systematic oppression of women in society.
The other issue, which ties back to why I am again thinking about the issue of an Australia flag relates to the increasing prevalence of the southern cross as a tattoo request. From the podcast, those questioned were doing it more for the positive-nationalist reasons outlined above (even if not articulated very well). Reference was made to the events at Cronulla and potential racism-based reasons for this. Many of those interviewed rejected this, and I hope that the personal desire behind the tattoo choice mirror that of the positive rejection of racist violence that was the immediate aftermath of the Cronulla events.
So if we are to have national flags we should have at least two – with this being predicated on the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty. The Aboriginal flag does come out of the land, as the southern cross is representative of it. Removal of the union jack and it embodies is essential, if only symbolic, before positive steps can be made.