The Flag of Australia

The Flag of Australia



Our Flag wears the stars that blaze at night,
In our Southern skies of blue,
And a little old flag in the corner,
That's part of our heritage too.
It's for the English, the Scots and the Irish,
Who were sent to the ends of the earth,
The rogues and schemers, the doers and dreamers,
Who gave modern Australia its birth.
And you, who are shouting to change it,
You don't seem to understand,
It's the flag of our laws and our language,
Not the flag of a faraway land.
Though there are plenty of people who'll tell you,
How when Europe was plunged into night,
That little old flag in the corner,
Was their symbol of freedom and light.
It doesn't mean we owe allegiance,
To a forgotten imperial dream,
We've the stars to show where we're going,
And the old flag to show where we've been.
It's only an old piece of bunting,
It's only an old piece of rag,
But there are thousands who've died for its honour,
And shed of their blood for OUR FLAG.

Robin Northover


The Australian flag is composed of three parts:
• The Union Jack (British flag) in the top left corner,
• The 'Star of Federation' in the bottom left corner, and
• The Southern Cross, taking up the right half of the flag.

The Union Jack shows that the first colonisation by Europeans was by Britain. In case you didn't know, Australia started as a penal colony. The Star of Federation is a seven pointed star. They came to the number seven, by giving each state (six in all) a point on the star, and having one more point for Australia's territories (of which there are several). There are two mainland territories, and several overseas, including two in Antarctica. The Southern Cross is a constellation that can be seen from all of Australia's states and territories.

All the stars have an inner diameter (circle on which the inner corners rest) of 4/9 the outer diameter (circle of outer corners), even the 5-point star. The positions of the stars are as follows:
• commonwealth star - centred in lower hoist,
• alpha - straight below centre fly 1/6 up from bottom edge,
• beta - 1/4 of the way left and 1/16 up from the centre fly,
• gamma - straight above centre fly 1/6 down from top edge,
• delta - 2/9 of the way right and 31/240 up from the centre fly,
• epsilon - 1/10 of the way right and 1/24 down from the centre fly.

The positions of alpha-epsilon are given with respect to the centre of the square fly, and distances in terms of hoist width of the flag.

(taken from www.australianflag.org.au)

Following Federation as a new nation (the Commonwealth of Australia) on 1st January, 1901 the Commonwealth Government announced a Federal Flag design competition on 29th April, 1901. The review of Review for Australiasia, a Melbourne journal, had initiated an Australian flag competition in 1900, a unique event at the time. It was agreed that the entries received by this journal would be accepted in the Government's competition. The contest attracted 32,823 entries from men, women and children. An expert panel of judges assessed the entries using guidelines which included history, heraldry, distinctiveness, utility and cost of manufacture, On 3rd September, 1901, a public ceremony was held at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, where Lady Hopetoun, wife of the Governor-General, opened a display of the entries in the competition. The Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Edmund Barton, announced that five entrants, who had submitted similar designs, were to share the honour of being declared the designers of Australia's own flag. They were: Ivor Evans, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy from Melbourne; Leslie John Hawkins, a teenager apprenticed to a Sydney optician; Egbert John Nuttall, a Melbourne architect; Annie Dorrington, an artist from Perth; and William Stevens, a ship's officer from Auckland, New Zealand. The Commonwealth Government and the Review of Reviews for Australasia provided 75 each and the Havelock Tobacco Company added 50 to this making a total of 200 prize money, a considerable amount at the time. The five winners received 40 each.

The Australian National Flag features the five stars of the constellation of the Southern Cross and the Commonwealth Star, and the combined crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick. The union of crosses represents Australia's early settlers. The Commonwealth Star with its seven points represents the unity of the six Australian states and the seventh point stands for all Australian Territories. Under the Flags Act of 1953, passed unanimously by parliament, it was confirmed that our "Stars and Crosses" design be the chief national symbol by law, custom and tradition and that it be honoured with the title "Australian National Flag". The new status of the national flag was emphasized when the act of parliament received royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II, on Her Majesty's visit to Australia in 1954. The Australian rules of flag etiquette are designed to ensure that the national flag is displayed with the dignity befitting its status.

The Australian National Flag identifies a free and democratic people in a nation united in purpose. Our national flag belongs equally to all Australians whatever their origins. Each of the symbols on the flag has a special meaning for Australians. The stars of the Southern Cross represent our geographic position in the Southern Hemisphere; the Commonwealth star stands for our federation of States and Territories; the Crosses represent the principles on which our nation is based, namely, parliamentary democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech.

In 1996 the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, proclaimed 3rd September as Australian National Flag Day, to commemorate the day in 1901 on which our national flag of "Stars and Crosses" was first flown. It is the right and privilege of every Australian to fly the Australian National Flag.


Prior to Federation on 1 January 1901, the official flag of the Australian Colonies was the flag of Great Britain the 'Union Jack'. However, the British colonial Naval Defence Act 1865 authorised the establishment of naval defence forces by the colonies and specified that such naval vessels should fly a Blue ensign with 'the seal or badge of the colony in the fly thereof'. Such flags were designed and adopted by the colonies. The flags of the Australian colonies date from 1876 (New South Wales and Queensland), 1877 (Victoria) and 1895 (Tasmania and Western Australia). South Australia did not adopt a flag until 1904. Over time, use of these flags was extended beyond mere display on naval vessels.

Taken form the Australian Parliamentary Library website

Passed on the 24 March 1998
Bills Digest 18 1996-97
Flags Amendment Bill 1996 (changed to 1998)

WARNING: This Digest is prepared for debate. It reflects the legislation as introduced and does not canvass subsequent amendments. This Digest was available from 14 August 1996.

Passage History

Date Introduced: 26 June 1996
House: House of Representatives
Portfolio: Administrative Services
Commencement: On Royal Assent


The Bill seeks to amend the Flags Act 1953 (Cwlth) by providing that the present Australian National Flag can only be replaced if a majority of State and Territory electors qualified to vote for the House of Representatives agree. There is no added requirement for a majority of States to support such a replacement as is required for an amendment to the Commonwealth Constitution.(1)


On 25 April 1996, the Prime Minister said:
The new Federal Government is to take action, as promised, to protect our great national symbol, the Australian Flag.
Legislation will be introduced early in the life of the new Parliament ... to ensure that the Australian Flag cannot be changed without the approval of all of the Australian people voting at a referendum or plebiscite.
This will mean that no politician, no political party and no special interest group will be able to tamper with the design of our flag.(2)

When the Prime Minister announced that legislation would be introduced to require that the Australian National Flag could only be changed by a popular vote, it was reported that both the Opposition and the Democrats would support the move.(3)

What is the Australian National Flag?
The Australian National Flag is also known as the blue ensign. It features the Union Jack, the Federation star(4), and the Southern Cross on a dark blue background.

The history of the Australian National Flag

Before Federation, the Australian colonies flew the Union Jack and other British flags. However, in 1901 the Commonwealth Government held a competition to design two flags - one for official and naval purposes and the other for merchant ships. Almost 33,000 entries from around the world were received. The 200 pound prize money was divided among five entrants who had submitted similar designs. In 1902 Edward VII approved the designs.

Today's Australian National Flag is based on the design of the blue ensign. The flag selected to be the official and naval flag contained the Union Jack, a Federation star and the Southern Cross on a blue background. This flag became known as the blue ensign. The design selected for use by the merchant navy was known as the red ensign and was identical except for the red background colour of the flag.(5)

The blue and red ensigns were gazetted in 1903. During the next five decades, there appears to have been little consensus about when the two ensigns should be used. Sometimes the red ensign was flown on land, sometimes the Union Jack was used in official ceremonies.

The Flags Act 1953

With the passage of the Flags Act 1953, the Commonwealth blue ensign became the Australian National Flag.(6) Until the passage of this Act, no legislative action had ever been taken to set down the precise form of the blue ensign or the circumstances in which it should be used. Introducing the Flags Bill 1953, Prime Minister Menzies said:

The bill is very largely a formal measure which puts into legislative form what has become almost the established practice in Australia.(7)

Section 3 of the Flags Act 1953 provides that the blue flag described in Schedule 1 and reproduced in Part I Schedule 2 of the Act is the Australian National Flag.

Under section 4 of the Flags Act 1953, the red flag described in Schedule 1 and reproduced in Part II of Schedule 2 is to be known as the Australian Red Ensign.(8) The Flags Act 1953 also contains a provision stating that 'This Act does not affect the right or privilege of a person to fly the Union Jack.'(9)

Are there other official Australian flags?

The answer to this question is 'yes.' In 1967, the Australian White Ensign was proclaimed by the Governor-General to be the ensign of the Royal Australian Navy and in 1982, the Royal Australian Air Force Ensign was proclaimed by the Governor-General to be the RAAF ensign. In 1995, the Governor-General proclaimed the Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag as flags of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and flags of significance to the Australian nation generally. These proclamations were made under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953. Section 5 provides that the Governor-General may, by Proclamation, appoint 'such other flags and ensigns of Australia as he thinks fit.'

Not all flags in Australia are established under the Flags Act 1953. In 1995, the Commonwealth Government estimated that there were over twenty other official flags. Official flags may be established in a number of ways including by Commonwealth, State or Territory legislation, by legislative instrument, by proclamation or by the use of the Royal Prerogative. These official flags include the Customs Flag, the Civil Air Ensign, the Norfolk Island Flag, the Flags of the States and the State Governors, the Flags of the Northern Territory and the ACT, the Governor-General's Flag and the Queen's Personal Flag.

What flag was flown during the First and Second World Wars?

When the question of a new Australian flag is debated, it is sometimes said that the Australian National Flag should not be changed because Australians fought and died under it in two World Wars. This is only part of the story: 'On the battlefronts, Australian servicemen would as often see the Union Jack and the flags of the Allies as they would the Australian blue ensign.'(10) In both World Wars, the RAAF fought under the British Royal Air Force Flag.(11) In World War II, the RAN fought under the British Navy Ensign with the Australian blue ensign at the bow as an additional flag.(12) The Australian Army fought under Australian red and blue ensigns and the Union Jack.

How can Australia's National Flag be changed under the Flags Act at present?

Australia's National Flag could be changed at present by amending or repealing section 3 of the Flags Act 1953.

Have there been previous attempts to entrench the Australian National Flag?

From 1984, there have been a series of private member's bills to entrench the Australian National Flag. None were passed by both Houses of Parliament. The first of these Bills was introduced in 1984. It sought, among other things, to provide that the Australian National Flag could only be changed with the approval of a majority of all electors and a majority of States. The history of referenda in Australia under section 128 of the Constitution indicate that the double majority requirement is almost impossible to meet.(14)

From 1988, private members bills designed to entrench the Australian National Flag provided that a proposal to change the flag need only be approved by a majority of electors. The most recent attempt was in 1994, when a Private Senator's Bill was introduced into the Senate, the purpose of which was to require a successful referendum to precede any alteration to the Australian National Flag. This bill also provided that the appointment of other flags and ensigns would be subject to disallowance by either House of Parliament.

Public Opinion and the Australian National Flag

An AGB McNair Poll taken on 26-28 June 1996 asked 2057 voters whether they thought the Australian flag should be changed. Sixty-six per cent said "no", 27 per cent said "yes' and 7 per cent did not know.(15) Public opinion has fluctuated on this issue, often depending on the way questions are asked and the climate in which they are asked. AGB McNair polls taken in 1984 revealed that 61 per cent of those interviewed wished to retain the existing flag, compared with 66 per cent in 1985 and 46 per cent in 1995. Opinion polls taken by Morgan and Time Morgan showed that in 1979 and 1982, 63 per cent of respondents wished to retain the existing flag, compared with 55 per cent in 1984 and 52 per cent in 1992. For the same years, the percentage of respondents who favoured a new flag were 27 per cent, 32 per cent, 39 per cent and 42 per cent respectively.(16)

What is the effect of the Flags Amendment Bill 1996?

The Bill attempts to entrench the Australian National Flag so that it cannot be changed except by a vote of a majority of State and Territory electors. However, the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty means that the proposed amendments could be repealed or replaced in the normal way by the Parliament. Additionally, a future Parliament might legislate to replace the Australian National Flag without first repealing the amendments made by this Bill. In the latter case, a constitutional challenge might result.

If enacted, the Flags Amendment Bill 1996 could not legally bind a future Parliament. Of course, other considerations - in particular, a concern about repealing a measure mandating consultation with the people and the need to secure majorities in both Houses - may make it extremely unlikely that Parliament would repeal new subsections 3(2),(3) and (4).

Are the proposed amendments unconstitutional?

Section 1 of chapter 1 of the Commonwealth Constitution provides that:
The legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament, which shall consist of the Queen, a Senate, and a House of Representatives, and which is herein-after called "The Parliament," or "The Parliament of the Commonwealth."
It is arguable that the Flags Amendment Bill 1996 is unconstitutional because it seeks to invest legislative power in the people - who are not recognised as part of the legislative arm of the Commonwealth in the Constitution.(17)
Given a plaintiff with the requisite standing, the legislation could be challenged in the High Court.

It is also arguable that the proposed legislation is not unconstitutional on the basis that it is not an attempt to constitute a new legislative body comprising the Queen, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the electors but is only a limited delegation of legislative power by the Parliament to this alternative legislature.(18)

Main Provisions
Item 1 of Schedule 1 inserts a number of new subsections into the Flags Act 1953. New subsection 3(2) provides that the present Australian National Flag shall only cease to be the National Flag if a majority of electors in the States and Territories, are given a choice between the present National Flag and a new flag or flags and they choose a new flag.

New subsection 3(3) provides that the way in which a proposal for a referendum on the flag is put to the electors will be determined by the Parliament.


If the Bill is passed then a future Parliament could repeal the legislation or even perhaps merely ignore it and so avoid the requirement to hold a referendum before changing the Australian National Flag.

1.Section 128, Constitution.
2.'Anzac Day,' John Howard, MP Press Release, 25 April 1996.
3.'Tripartite support for flag law,' Canberra Times, 26 April 1996.
4.The Federation Star is a seven-pointed star. The points of the star represent the States and the Territories.
5.Department of Administrative Services, Australian Flags, AGPS, Canberra, 1995.
6.Section 1.
7.Parliamentary Debates (Hansard)House of Representatives, Flags Bill 1953, 20 November 1953, p.367.
8.The Australian Red Ensign is the proper flag for merchant shipping.
9.Section 8.
10.Department of Administrative Services, op.cit, p.12.
11.See Foley, CA The Australian Flag. Colonial Relic or Contemporary Icon? Federation Press, Sydney, 1996; Department of Administrative Services, op.cit.
12.Department of Administrative Services, op.cit.
13.The 1985, 1987 and 1990 Bills were passed by the Senate but not debated by the House of Representatives.
14.Of 42 referenda proposals put to the Australian people since Federation, only eight have been successful.
15.'Poll finds strong support for keeping the flag', The Age (Melbourne), 5 July 1996.
16.Foley, op.cit.
17.See, for example, `Lawyers question Howard flag plan,' The Australian, 26 April 1996.
18.See Foley, op.cit; Winterton, G `Can the Commonwealth Parliament enact manner and form legislation,' Federal Law Review, vol. 11, 1980, pp.167-202.
19.See Bennett, B; Twomey, A & Ireland, I Flags Amendment Bill 1994 (Private Senator's Bill), Bills Digest No. 111/1994, 20 June 1994.
20.'No flag change without a vote,' The Age (Melbourne), 25 April 1996; 'Unfurling a new image,' The Age (Melbourne), 3 May 1996..


• The number of points on the stars of the Southern Cross on today's Australian flag differs from the original competition-winning design in that the stars varied between five and nine, reflecting the relative brightness of each in the night sky. The British Admiralty standardised the Southern Cross by giving the four biggest stars seven points and five for the faintest Epsilon Crucis. This change was made ostensibilty to improve the ease of manufacture.
• Australia's national flag is one of only two in the world to feature a seven-pointed star. The other is that of Jordan.
• The Flags Act 1953 originally contained a serious drafting error in Table A. The outer diameter of the Commonwealth Star was recorded as being three-eighths of the width of the flag, instead of the true value of three-tenths of the width of the flag. This historical document is also of interest because it was personally signed by Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Australia in 1954. The act was amended to correct the error in 1954.

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