Australian Flag Facts: Meaning & History

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson you will learn about the flag of Australia. First you'll learn a little about its history and how the flag was chosen, and then you will learn about the current debate over whether the flag should be changed.

Some Australian Background

We all know that the U.S. was a British colony, but let's look at the flag of another former British colony -- Australia. The British colonized Australia in 1788. You can think of it like the 13 colonies in the U.S., but this time it was 6 colonies. Those colonies united, or federated, in 1901 to become the independent nation of Australia. However, Australia is a little bit different than the U.S., because while it is an independent country, it is still a member of the British Commonwealth. That means that the Queen of England still has some say over Australia's affairs. We can see how that works when we look at the Australian National Flag.

HMAS Sydney

History

The flag was adopted on January 1, 1901 when Australia was federated. Australia's first Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Sir Edmund Barton announced that Australia would have a public competition and citizens could send in their designs for the new flag. Over 30,000 designs were submitted, and 5 of them were almost exactly the same. Those 5 were awarded equal first place, and shared the 200 pound prize money. The flag was originally called the Commonwealth Blue Ensign, and it was flown for the first time at the Exhibition building in Melbourne on September 3, 1901. Because Australia is part of the British Commonwealth, it still needed to get royal approval for the chosen flag. In 1902, King Edward VII gave his approval.

There were two versions of the flag, one with a blue background, the blue ensign, and one with a red background, the red ensign, which caused a little confusion. According to British custom, the blue ensign was to be flown on government buildings, forts, and naval vessels, but private citizens could not fly it. So, many Australians flew the red ensign. It wasn't until 1953 that the blue ensign officially became Australia's national flag. The Flag Act of 1953 affirmed the blue ensign as the official Australian flag, and allowed private citizens to fly it. Now that regular people could fly the blue flag, the red flag fell out of use.

Red Ensign Flag

Flag Design

The flag is set on a blue background, and has three important symbols. First there's the Union Jack in the upper left corner. The Union Jack is the flag of Great Britain, and an obvious symbol of Australia's connection to Great Britain. Some believe that it was a kind of unwritten rule that the Australian flag had to include an obvious resemblance to the British flag in color and design if it had a real shot at being approved. It's hard to prove whether that 'rule' was really used, but it is interesting to note that although Australia had been using green and gold as its national colors since the late 1800s, the flag uses the red, white and blue of Great Britain.

Australian Flag

On the right side of the flag you can see the Southern Cross. This is a constellation that is visible in the southern hemisphere, and was an important orientation point for sailors. Nowadays, you're likely to find many an Aussie man with a Southern Cross tattoo. Finally, in the bottom left side, there's the Commonwealth Star. The Commonwealth Star has 7 points for Australia's states and territories.

The Great Flag Debate

From the beginning there has been controversy over the Australian flag. In the late 1980s and early 1990s especially, a strong movement emerged to change the flag. Other Commonwealth countries had chosen new flags, like Canada, which changed over to the maple leaf design. In Australia, the debate about the flag has also been tied up with the debate about becoming a republic and cutting all ties with the British monarchy.

Supporters of keeping the current flag argue that veterans fought and died underneath it. Also, they argue that the Union Jack is an important part of Australia's heritage and story. Unsurprisingly, many supporters of the current flag also prefer to be connected to Great Britain politically. However, other Australians simply don't want change.

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