SYDNEY — FLAGS are supposed to unify nations. But Australian politicians now resemble warring kangaroos as they box each other over whether the nation needs a new flag.
At issue is the upper left-hand corner of the Australian flag where a Union Jack - a combination of the flags of England, Scotland, and Ireland - looks down on five white stars, representing the Southern Cross constellation, and a sixth star, symbolizing the federation. It has been the official flag since 1953 when then-Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies got Parliament to formally adopt it.
However, Prime Minister Paul Keating is now determined to give Aussies a new flag to wave. Mr. Keating believes the present flag does not represent an independent nation with the Union Jack on the corner; it seems like too much of the old colonial empire when Australia was a stepchild to England.
Keating's desire for a new flag surfaced during his first trip abroad last week, when he told schoolchildren waving Australian flags in Papua New Guinea, "I'll get you a new one [flag] soon." Only a few days earlier he told an Indonesian audience, "I'm sure in this part of the world people do wonder about Australians representing themselves with the British flag in the corner of the flag."
Keating's forays against the country's English heritage began earlier this year when Queen Elizabeth II made one of her periodic visits. At the time, he said Australia's future was with Asia, not with England.
Keating's efforts have enraged the Opposition leader, John Hewson, who believes Keating is merely trying to make the public forget the 10.5 percent unemployment rate.
On April 28, in parliamentary debate, Mr. Hewson challenged the prime minister to take the issue directly to the Australian people. He noted that in the past such issues as the national tune have been decided by national referendum.
Keating would not commit to a referendum but said there would have to be clear evidence of public support for a change. And, he said the cabinet would begin a process of designing a new flag.
According to public-opinion polls, the Australian people are not exactly raving about the old flag, but most don't want it changed, either. A Morgan Gallup Poll published on April 28 in Time Magazine found that 57 percent of 1,452 people polled wanted to keep the Union Jack in the flag while 37 percent wanted it off. Twenty-five years ago, 72 percent favored the Union Jack in the flag. It is said that the public will be completely in favor of a new flag by the year 2001, when the country celebrates its 1 00th anniversary as a federation.
In the meantime, organizations such as the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL) are encouraging members to support the old flag. Last week thousands of Sydneysiders waved the flag during the ANZAC Day parade which honors diggers - Aussie soldiers - from all the wars.
The flag controversy is not new in Australia. In 1986, Ausflag Ltd., a nonprofit organization that promoted a new flag, held a contest. It received some 40,000 entries. The winning flag was a Southern Cross centered on a blue field. However, then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke vetoed the change. Ausflag is still trying. "We want a Boston tea party," says Harold Scruby, executive director.
Australians have been equivocal about the flag for a long time. In 1900, prior to a competition for a new flag, A.B. (Banjo) Patterson wrote the poem "Our Own Flag," in which he says:
The English flag - it is ours
We stand by it wrong or
But deep in our hearts is the
We fought for the sake of a
And, the English flag may
flutter and wave
Where the World-wide
But the flag the Australian
dies to save
Is the flag of the Southern