AUSTRALIA DAY 2006
Sales of the Australian flag are up. Karen Kissane finds out why.
IT WAS a hot Friday night and the half-a-dozen young people were as drunk as lords, cheerfully so, as they ambled along Fitzroy Street in St Kilda.
Two of the men had Australian flags tied around their necks like capes. They were a bit too drunk to notice that the national emblem was dragging on the pavement behind them, a grubby casualty of the trend towards patriotism as fashion accessory.
Patriotism is spiking. The Australian flag is outside more public buildings and suburban homes than ever before, according to Melbourne’s oldest flag manufacturer, Evan Evans. Sales have increased three-fold in the past five years, with the most notable rise among private rather than corporate buyers.
The flag can be seen fluttering on everything from taxi roofs to construction machinery. It is also being employed by younger generations in a more personal way: wrapped like a blanket or shawl around tennis fans, painted onto faces at the cricket and on the almost-bare bottoms of G-stringed demonstrators in Washington protesting against sheep mulesing.
Melbourne University historian Professor Graeme Davison said: “I was pondering the significance of wearing the flag as an article of apparel versus raising and saluting the flag, as we used to do. Doesn’t it mean that the nation is no longer an object of veneration, external and above oneself, but an aspect of personal identity, at the service of the self?”
Perhaps this explains what happened at the Cronulla race riots in Sydney, where “Skip” men wrapped themselves in flags and called themselves “Sons of Anzacs” while rounding on people of Middle Eastern appearance. Prime Minister John Howard refused to criticise them – “I would never condemn people for being proud of the Australian flag” – but Treasurer Peter Costello labelled their actions a desecration: “The Australian flag represents . . . what is good about our nation, and it is not something to be wrapped around you as you are battering somebody in the street.”
Where is the rise in patriotic fervour coming from? And, perhaps more importantly, where is it going?
Bruce Merrett of Abel Flagpoles and Flags said sales had been steadily rising for three years. “Since September 11, patriotism has increased probably four-fold,” he said.
Jim Hilbert, managing director of Carroll and Richardson Flagworld, said his company’s sales this month were at a 40-year high and 50 per cent higher than at this time last year. “We don’t understand why. Maybe it’s to do with the Cronulla incident or the Commonwealth Games, or the terrorism-cum-Bali scenario, where people are turning to patriotism to express their feelings.”
Mr Hilbert has noted the rise in interest among young people. “There used to be a phenomenon with the boxing kangaroo flag, but now kids are wanting to put Australian flags over their shoulders.”
Professor Davison suggested the Australian flag has risen in prominence as that other obvious focus of loyalty, the image of the monarch, has declined. “It is also reinforced by a culture in which logos, brands and icons are ubiquitous.”
Two Eltham Secondary College girls at the tennis this week, Bonnie McLeod and Amy Voisey, both 15, bought flags and wore them even though no Australians were playing in the Open that day. “We just wanted to get dressed up and have a bit of fun,” Bonnie said. “And you are making a statement that you are proud to be Australian.”
Dr Elizabeth Kwan is a Canberra-based historian whose book Flag and Nation – “which looks at the changing relationship between Australians and their national flags, plural” – will be published in May. She points out that Australians have fought under several different flags: Britain’s Union Jack, a red ensign, and the blue ensign we now know as the national flag, the status of which was formalised by Prime Minister Robert Menzies only in 1953.
Dr Kwan attributes much of the current rise in patriotism, especially among the young, to the activity of conservative lobby groups and policies of the Federal Government. She said the Flag Amendment Bill, passed in 1996, had made it more difficult for future governments to change the flag. The Howard Government had also declared a National Flag Day (September 3), she said, allowed a video that portrays the virtues of the current flag to be distributed to schools, and insisted that schools install flags and flagpoles and have regular ceremonies around the flag.
Dr Kwan said Americans’ preoccupation with their flag, “Old Glory”, began in the 1880s as their cities were flooded with non-English-speaking immigrants. She wonders whether the same thing might be happening in Australia, as our migrant intake has shifted from mainly Anglo-Saxon to larger numbers of people from Asia and the Middle East.
“Groups pushing the anti-change-to-the-flag line have an attitude of hanging on to what they see as the old Australia, an Anglo-Saxon Australia,” she said.
Professor Davison says a key question is: What does the flag represent?
“If it unambiguously represented civic virtues or values of liberty, justice, fairness etc, it would be harder to appropriate it in a racist or sectarian cause,” he said. “But if it is just the badge or logo of my mob, as against yours, then it can acquire more of a tribal rather than properly national significance. I think that perhaps something of this kind is now going on, and it is assisted by the difficulty in a post-imperial but not yet republican context of assigning definite civic qualities to it.”
For citizens such as Bonnie and Amy, the flag and its symbolism are fine just as they are. Amy said: “I think it’s good because it says we don’t mind being friends with other people, having alliances and stuff.”
First published in The Age.