Union Jacks and Southern Skies - part two, section one

The National Flag Misunderstood

The Commonwealth flag competition required that each entry should consist of "two coloured sketches - one for the merchant service, and one for naval or official use". Thus, it evolved that the blue ensign was used for Government use, whilst the red ensign was used by the Merchant Navy.(22)

For many years "the Commonwealth Blue Ensign was regarded as an official flag, and its use on land was restricted to government establishments. The flying of the Ensign on land by individuals and non-government bodies was discouraged". It was, therefore, the red ensign that enjoyed much use by the public. Red ensigns were displayed in schools, used on expeditions, and taken to war by servicemen; indeed, that famous flag made in secret by the Changi prisoners-of-war was a red ensign. When Mawson landed in Antarctica in 1930, the flags he and his men stood under were the Union Jack and the Australian red ensign.(23)

From September 1901 Australia had two officially approved ensigns, but since neither was specifically for use by the public, it was not surprising that the popular Federation Flag (used in the movement for the federation of the Australian colonies) was still widely flown, even up into the 1920s. The Federation Flag was viewed as "a flag of the people" and continued to be used, especially on public occasions; as well as in literature and advertising. It was even flown at official events, such as the 1907 Melbourne meeting of State Premiers, and during the 1927 visit to Australia of the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth).(24)

The flying of the blue ensign by the general public was eventually encouraged by Prime Minister Menzies in 1941, during the Second World War, when he directed "that there should be no restrictions on the flying of the flag". This directive was later supported by a press statement issued by Prime Minister Chifley in 1947.(25)

However, despite the existence of the two Australian ensigns, the Union Jack remained the national flag of Australia. As the 1939 edition of the authoritative Flags of the World states: "The national flag of the Commonwealth of Australia is of course the Union, her ensign the Blue Ensign with a large white seven pointed star beneath the Union, and the Southern Cross" (emphasis added). Throughout Australia, in the early part of the century, "the Union Jack was almost as often flown as the Australian flag", although often with an Australian ensign alongside. Menzies himself had spelt out the position of the Union Jack, when he made a radio speech on the brink of the Second World War, declaring that Australia and Britain were "at one", under "one king, one flag".(26)

Thus it can be seen that the flag of the Australian Commonwealth was regarded as an Ensign, not a National Flag. As Barlow Cumberland explained in 1909, the use of the term "ensign" arose "from the early days when a smaller flag - bearing a national emblem or the crest or coat-of-arms of a liege lord - had been inserted in a larger flag. This larger flag, bearing the emblem or insignia of its wearers, was termed an `Ensign'" and that "the younger nations of the Britains over the seas raise the Union Jack in the upper corner of their Dominion Union Ensigns to tell that their bearers are all Britons, sons and daughters of the Family, loyal to the British Crown." Although the present Australian flag is now legally the National Flag, it is still technically regarded as an Ensign.(27)

The legal status of the flag was finally changed in the early 1950s. In 1951 King George VI "approved a recommendation by the Government that the Commonwealth Blue Ensign be adopted as the Australia Flag". Therefore, in November 1953, the Australian Parliament passed the Flags Act to proclaim that the Australian blue ensign was now the "Australian National Flag" and that the red version was now the "Australian Red Ensign". However, the Flags Act did not become law until after Queen Elizabeth II, on her Royal Tour in Australia, personally assented to it on 14th February 1954 (the Act's actual date of commencement was the 14th April 1954).(28)

From its unveiling in 1901 to its Imperial approval in 1903, the Commonwealth Flag had no official status; from 1903 to 1954 it was simply the Australian Blue Ensign, the junior partner to the Union Jack. It became the national flag in 1954; but from 1901 up to 1954 it was the Union Jack that was the national flag of Australia.

Union Jacks and Southern Skies

Australian Nationalism Information Database - www.ausnatinfo.angelfire.com/~natinfo