The Australian flag, like the Australian democracy it symbolises, is a gift of the Australian people.
At the time of Federation, the first national government invited designs for a new flag, and nearly 33,000 Australians responded with an extraordinary variety of designs.
Amazingly, five entrants came up with the same winning design, and it is worth setting their names down because they are unsung heroes of Australian national identity. They were Annie Dorrington, Ivor Evans, Leslie Hawkins, Egbert Nuttall and William Stevens.
This quintet’s winning design was announced by Prime Minister Edmund Barton on 3 September, 1901, and it is the anniversary of that event we honour today.
So we should take great pride in the fact the Australian flag was designed by ordinary Australians in a public competition open to all, not compiled behind closed doors by some bureaucratic committee.
And what was so praiseworthy about this flag that it won against so many competing designs? Well, it captured the imagination of the new nation by telling the story of the new nation.
There’s the blue of our surrounding seas in this island continent; the southern cross, a constellation unknown to the old civilisation of the northern hemisphere; the larger star symbolising what Alfred Deakin called the “miracle” of Federation; and the Union Jack to remind us of Britain’s lasting gifts of democracy, the rule of law and the English language.
Of course it doesn’t tell the whole story. The oldest Australians are conspicuously and regrettably absent from its design. It was, after all, 1901.
But for all its faults this was the flag, or sometimes its red ensign variant, under which most – though admittedly not all – Australian soldiers have fought. It is the flag that adorned so many of their coffins when they made the supreme sacrifice.
It is the flag that flies above Australian embassies, consulates, peacekeeping posts and scientific bases across the globe. It is the flag that has marked Australia’s many successes at the Olympics. And it is the flag that flies whenever an Australian sporting team takes to the field of honour.
But, above all, it is our flag, the flag that is part of everyday life in the cities and towns of this wide land. We fly it in our schools and on our public buildings, even on some of our homes. And it is right we do so.
After all, there is nothing wrong with Australian patriotism. It is not aping America to love this country and be proud of the symbols that represent everything good we stand for.
Undeniably there is pressure to change the flag, and my response to that is simple. When the people wish it, and when a design captures our imagination as the Canadian maple leaf flag did in 1965, then we will happily change.
Until then, the flag designed by Australians for Australians 103 years ago should fly with honour in every place the name of this great country is held high. And that is as it should be.