Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Australian Flag as Meaningful Heraldry

Someone who recently read my comments supporting Constitutional Monarchy, sneeringly asked me if I’d like to defend the Australian flag as well. As it happens I would, but probably not for the reasons he thinks.

It is always fun to be called an arch-conservative, particularly by somebody who cannot actually define what a Conservative is. Likewise it is entertaining to be accused of any sort of ‘ism’, usually by those who replace reason with unthinking assumption. Several times in my academic career, I had the great felicity of being accused as both “right wing of Genghis Khan”, and “a radical socialist loony”, by people in the audience who had (at least theoretically) been listening to the same paper! It always gave me a warm feeling that I had achieved exactly the right balance.

If I am anything, I am probably an arch-cynic. My perspective on government for instance is almost anarchical in my belief that the less of it there is the better. (In his book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein defined a ‘rational anarchist’ as someone who was happy to abide by whichever of the laws you want to make that he thinks actually necessary, and simply ignore the rest… So tempting!) So I presume that someone reading my Constitutional Monarchy blogs could happily consider me either an arch-conservative or an arch-anarchist depending on what they take from the articles. Again and that cheers me.

I suppose I should least classify myself as conservative to the point of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. On the other hand, many of the reasons that I would give to my decisions have philosophical, practical, or moral grounds which would terrify most Conservatives. In fact I think some of them would terrify quite a few radicals.

So when I argue in favour of the Australian flag in its current form, I do so not on the grounds of reactionary attachment to tradition. Instead I am doing so on the grounds that I both like and believe in the story conveyed by the meaningful Heraldry involved in the production of the Australian flag.

When I do a Heraldry presentation at a school, I always start by demonstrating the military significance of Heraldic images in a period of armour and visors. Students understand this concept. But when I ask whether it is necessary in modern war fighting, I get confused response, until a flash up an image of a colourfully emblazoned Vietnam War period F4 Phantom (which I tell them is one of the prototype shots from early 1960). All the students are immediately able to identify which nationality the aircraft belongs to. With a bit of prodding they can usually tell me what the number of stars and stripes represents. With a bit more prodding, they work out that counting the number of stars on a given US flag will give you the historical period with a nice degree of accuracy. In fact that particular layout of stars was only 1959 - 1960!

From there I move on to the British Union Jack, getting students to identify crosses of St George, St Andrew, and Sir Patrick, and the various ways that have been combined (including by the English/Scottish Commonwealth under Cromwell). Which leads nicely into the use of the Union Jack in the flags of Commonwealth and other countries (such as Hawaii, both as an independence nation and then once co-opted as an American state), who identify with the concepts conveyed by the Union Jack.

For a start, the red white and blue basis of the British, American, French, and most early Commonwealth countries has for more than two centuries represented liberal democracies with rules of law. In the first and second World Wars, those colours were the good guys, and any other colour scheme was the bad guys (with a side comment that the Soviet Union tried to play both sides, so shooting at them was just a 50-50 chance of getting it right).

Secondly the union Jack represents a Judeo Christian heritage, relating usually to a Westminster style system of government, with common-law features, and some sort of attempt at devising a system of human equality. Even many of the ex-Commonwealth nations who have put other symbols in the Canton (upper hoist quarter), such as the federal stars used by Malaysia and the United States, are usually simply announcing a variation on the Westminster approach, but with the same underlying principles of rule of law etc.

The body of the Australian flag is blue, representing our naval heritage and situation. A surprising number of students can identify that the use of the Southern Cross reflects not only our location, but the reason for our discovery. (Captain Cook was commissioned by the British astrological society to study the transit of Venus winning happened to bump in to the two nations - Australia and New Zealand - which like to explain that fact on their flags). Unfortunately no student now knows that the four main stars in the Southern Cross were assigned moral values by Dante - justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude - which the flags designer felt were important.

The federation star has seven points, which most students will tell you represents six states and two territories. When queried, most realize that Australia has always had offshore territories, though most do not realize that they included League of Nations mandates such as Papua and New Guinea in the past. The idea that the number has been in constant flux is a novelty to them, but many comment that this is properly more sensible than the American approach of changing all the flags every few years. (See Puerto-Rico’s current search for statehood…)

So the Australian flag tells an elegant story. It explains our cultural heritage; our political and legal system; our place in international relations over the last two centuries; our location; the reason for our discovery; our reliance on overseas trade; and our federal structure of government.

I have certainly not seen any alternative design that conveys anywhere near as much information. I have seen some pretty pictures, with little depth or meaning. I have seen some attempts to say more about the range of people living here (in both traditional, and newer immigrants), but only at the expense of an explanation of the cultural, legal or political system, which allows them to have a say - or indeed gave them good motivation to move here.

I suppose I can see a theoretical reason to modify the existing flag to expand the story. I have no objection to inserting a symbol representing the aboriginal people, perhaps in the middle of the Federation Star (I think that might be a nice statement of nationhood). I am not sure how we deal with people from other cultures who have chosen to emigrate here… certainly trying to do border right round the edge of the flag made up of the many symbols for the country’s that all those people have come from would be somewhat gross, not to mention an un-ending task as nations come and go. For the same reason I would be opposed to an American-style ever increasing number of stars around the edge to represent the different cultures people immigrated from. Again, I have no objection to another addition to the flag indicating that immigrants from all parts of the world are welcome (perhaps again some sort of symbol that encloses the federation star).

Yet the reason that I would accept such modifications, is simply that they help expand the beautiful story told by the magnificent Heraldry of the existing flag. Change for the sake of change is foolish. Change to some sort of less informative, inferior product, for what appears to be mainly negative and divisive reasons, is offensive and somewhat degrading. But change to the existing design for good and inclusive reasons could be considered eminently sensible.

So am I completely conservative, or just a little bit radical? Am I a romantic, or just practical? What do you think?


  1. As someone of Irish decent the cross of "Sir Patrick" (sic), certainly leads me to reflect on 'the elegant story' told by the Australian flag.
    I wouldn't describe you as 'conservative', 'a lttle bit radical', 'romantic' or 'practical, juat 'not very clever'.

  2. What NZ flag do you like?