When patriotism becomes provocation
January 31, 2009
John Huxley wants the Australian flag to be an emblem of quiet pride – not a rallying point for racism.
Not drowning, but waving. Just over 25 years ago, the nation celebrated one its greatest sporting victories, when Australia II sailed back from a watery grave to win the America’s Cup, by flying the flag. The famous green-and-gold boxing kangaroo flag.
As the historian Richard Cashman observes in his study Sport in the National Imagination, for two centuries Australians have celebrated, competed, fought and made friends under a dizzying variety of anthems, emblems, chants, colours and flags.
On Monday, though, it seemed only one set of paraphernalia, only one flag, was on show: the red, white and blue, the banner of a new Australianness, of a new political correctness. It was everywhere. It was on bandannas and bikinis, T-shirts and tattoos, caps and car stickers. It was worn as a cape, as a scarf, as a skirt. It was draped, as it routinely is these days, over the shoulders of sports stars such as the swimmer Stephanie Rice and the rehabilitated, and thereby rebranded, tennis player Jelena Dokic.
It was even drawn by a mischievous cartoonist about the body of the Australian of the Year, Mick Dodson, one of the few honoured Australians to express concern about the tone and timing of the Australia Day observance. Suddenly the whole of Australia was dressing like Pauline Hanson. The national flag was being loved, perhaps too much, possibly to death.
Inevitably, some flags, certainly too many flags this week, fell into the wrong hands. By midday, even Military Road in Mosman – a sedate, undemonstrative suburb, one might think, despite its surprisingly rich history of murder and mayhem – was ablaze with the red, white and blue, as parties of young people headed to Australian Day events in Manly or the city.
The scene was colourful, the mood light, the players mainly young. But bare chests, chants of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” – and plastic bags containing a six-pack of beer – were uneasily reminiscent of English football fans. They hinted at trouble to come.
And so it proved when, for the fourth year since the shameful Cronulla riots, Australia Day was again marred by violence, as reports came in of the flag being “hijacked”, being turned from an emblem, product, plaything, security blanket, whatever … into a weapon.
There was talk of “hate-filled rampages” or of “racial attacks” in Manly, where youths ran through the Corso, smashing car windows and espousing “Aussie pride”. It was played down by local police, who reported that the crowd’s behaviour was like that of a rowdy, alcohol-fuelled “old cricket crowd”. Not a very reassuring comparison.
But whether or not some Anglo Aussies were demanding – as they did in previous years – that darker-skinned revellers kissed the flag or suffer verbal and even physical abuse, many people had their Australia Day spoiled. Their national flag besmirched.
The offenders, variously described as “dickheads”, “louts” and “bogans”, drew strong criticism from angry and embarrassed mainstream Australians such as the entrepreneur Dick Smith, the state RSL President, Don Rowe, and, significantly, the NSW Premier, Nathan Rees.
Rees condemned the mob’s “reprehensible” behaviour, saying that to use an Australian symbol or flag to promote racism was to fail to understand what those symbols mean. “This kind of bigoted behaviour has no place in NSW.” True. But what can Australia do to ensure that its flag – the one thing above all others, perhaps, that is intended to unite – does not divide? How can it prevent quiet pride turning to provocation, ensure that a benign patriotism that acknowledges the plurality of Australian colours, creeds and histories, becoming a narrow nationalism? Or worse, racism?
So significant, so sacrosanct, have successive governments made Australia Day in the nation’s calendar of holidays and holy days, that there is a real danger that last Monday’s events are taken too seriously, that they prompt an equally intemperate overreaction.
They should not be exaggerated. Of the many hundreds of thousands who participated in official events, so far it seems not a single person has been charged. And as those “rowdy crowds” at the Sydney Cricket Ground attest, in matters of antisocial public behaviour, the NSW police have a relatively low threshold of tolerance. And so they should when minority freedoms, not Mexican waves, are at stake.
Similarly, they should not be intellectualised. They cannot be excused, but most incidents last Monday probably owed far more to those two other combustible elements of the traditional Australian summer, heat and alcohol, than to white supremacist ideologies, of the sort that festers in the dark interstices of the internet.
Even the ubiquity of the starry Southern Cross flag, one suspects, reflects not so much overwhelming public support for its content and configuration, as passion for its colours. As Prue Acton, doyenne of Olympic costume designers, explained, other colours, especially the sporting alternative of green and gold, for example, do not work.
“They don’t represent the spectrum. They tire the eyes and force them to seek relief elsewhere.” They are also irrelevant. “My land is red-gold, is ochre, is magenta-tinged and purple-shade.”
Red, white and blue may not tick all Acton’s colour boxes, but they mix well and make lucrative merchandise, especially for millions of young Australians wishing to make a patriotic fashion statement. Or a fashionable patriotic statement.
Quite what sort of political statement, if any, they think is made by the flag – which is officially described by the Federal Government as “Australia’s foremost national emblem” of many – is unclear.
In recent years, agitation for change, led by groups such as Ausflag, has stalled, the nation’s pulse gone untaken.
A 2004 Newspoll, however, revealed that as many as 32 per cent of respondents favoured changing the Australian flag to remove the Union Jack emblem, which recognises the history of British settlement. A further 11 per cent were uncommitted.
It was a decidedly mixed message, one which even Ausflag’s tireless executive director, Harold Scruby, concedes is unlikely to gain the urgent attention of either another conservative, albeit apologetic, prime minister, or of a nation that has far more pressing, financial issues to worry about for the foreseeable future.
What is clear is that moves for flags to be banned at Australia Day events, such as those advocated by worried organisers of the Big Day Out music festival two years ago, are undesirable, unworkable and highly unpopular. For several reasons.
For one thing, as Carol Foley, lawyer, academic and author of The Colonial Flag: Colonial Relic Or Contemporary Icon, published by Federation Press, argued this week, the status of the Southern Cross is ultimately irrelevant in determining or curtailing offensive behaviour.
“Banning the flag on certain occasions is the silliest thing to do. If you do something and you’re intimidating people, it does not matter really whether you’re doing it by waving a flag, or a tea towel, or a photo of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.” Target the thugs, not the flags.
For another, calls for a ban inevitably prompt a backlash from the vast majority of law-abiding, quietly patriotic Australians whose freedom to carry a flag would be immediately curtailed.
“What next?” demanded one prominent Australian sportsman when a ban was last canvassed. “I suppose we’ll be told that we can’t sing the blooming national anthem at football matches.”
Others went further, arguing patriotic observance should be further cranked up. The former NSW coalition leader, Peter Debnam, floated the idea of a national symbols bill that would require all public buildings to fly the flag. A bunch of crackpots in Victoria backed a new high-flown oath of commitment, for use before beach cricket matches and backyard barbecues. Thankfully, it was rejected.
As Foley points out, whatever one’s misgivings about the combination of Southern Cross and Union Jack, it commands respect as the current national flag and it has, in the view of the majority of Australians, served the nation well.
“It focuses on values, legal rights, constitutional freedoms, available to all irrespective of racial background, that date back to European settlement. To the foundations of what we’ve got today.”
Possibly. But if those freedoms are to be meaningful, they must include the right to burn the flag, to otherwise misuse it – obviously, only up to the point where it becomes a threat to the rights of others – and, yes, to question its design.
It is not the Shroud of Turin. It is not sacred, immutable. It must be a part of the seemingly endless debate – encouraged, curtailed, manufactured and manipulated by successive governments – over the so-called “things that define us as a nation”. Like, err, well, only our form of government, our national day, our anthem, our flag. Our everything. Our nothing. For what do most of these things really matter?
Without jumping too clumsily on the flagging Ausflag bandwagon, I believe – I hope – that eventually the form of government and the flag will change. The arguments have been well rehearsed. Striking though it may be, the present flag is confusing, derivative, demeaning, and increasingly irrelevant.
It might be imagined that Scruby and the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chairwoman Lowitja O’Donoghue would make unlikely political bedfellows, but they speak from different perspectives, as Anglo and Aboriginal, in surprisingly similar terms about the flag.
More than a decade ago O’Donoghue complained the flag failed to reflect a people that regards itself as independent, individual and inclusive.
“Instead, it symbolises a narrow slice of our history including a significant period when the rights of Australia’s indigenous people were overlooked.”
And this week Scruby did his reputation, among his opponents, for being a pain in the nation’s backside, no harm when he pointed out the existence of the Union Jack in the corner of the national flag gives moral support to the young, white kids who caused trouble on Monday. “It allowed our flag to be used as a racist symbol, allowing those of Anglo descent to say, ‘I’m more Australian than you.’ ”
That may be insufficient reason for redrawing the revered Southern Cross – especially given the small number of those who misuse it – but it is surely another, mildly disturbing piece of evidence in the growing case against a flag that has flown virtually unchanged since 1901, the year of Federation.
The more immediate danger, perhaps, is that more energy is devoted to the so-called “great debate”, constantly agonising, arguing about who we are, where we are going, how we want to present ourselves to the world. And that more raw material is generated for the burgeoning national government emblems industry, that seems determined to assert organisation over spontaneity, formal razzamatazz over reflection, artificial consensus over contented diversity, big over small, loud over quiet.
Preferably, not drowning in a sea of patriotic fervour, but still proudly waving.