SYDNEY, Australia -- 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 Australians 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.
Mr. 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."
The prime minister'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.
Mr. Keating's efforts have enraged opposition leader John Hewson, who believes Mr. 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 people. He noted that in the past such issues as the national tune have been decided by national referendum. Mr. 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, Australians are not exactly raving about the old flag but most don't want it changed either. A Morgan Gallup Poll published 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 2001, when the country celebrates its 100th anniversary as a federation.
The flag controversy in Australia is not new. In 1986, Ausflag Ltd., a non-profit 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.
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 in sooth
We stand by it wrong or right.
But deep in our hearts is the honest truth
We fought for the sake of a fight.
And, the English flag may flutter and wave
Where the World-wide Oceans toss,
But the flag the Australian dies to save
Is the flag of the Southern Cross.