Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Time to re-imagine the Australian flag

  • 11 May 2012

Being friends of the band, some of us used to go to hear Tootieville at inner-city hotels. They were an under-bubbling alternative band that brought out one record around the time of the Bicentennial. Today about the one thing I remember about Tootieville is the chorus to a song that went 'the only flag is your skin'.

You had to be there. It was hard to say what this line meant, whether a spoof on nationalism, some kind of erotic slogan, or just pretentious nonsense.

The proliferation since that time of tattooing as public expression brings the line back to my mind. When I see an attractive person covered in random images, my initial dismay is followed by the awareness we are seeing the insistent flag-waving of someone's inner frontiers.

But 'the only flag is your skin' tended to trigger a more general question: What is a flag? This was sometimes followed by the intermittently fluttering question: What is the meaning of the Australian flag?

There are national flags that make perfect sense. The tricolours of Europe express democratic republicanism. Old Glory is an emphatic display of American certainty, even if its cult inside the US is worrisome. Whenever I notice the flag of India I see the wheel of peace and Mahatma Gandhi. The Japanese flag hits you like a Zen koan.

But the same cannot be said of the Australian flag.

The problems begin with the fact that a quarter of it is taken up by another nation's flag. The presence of the Union Jack is a symbol of the slow separation of the Australian nation from its imperial connections. Satirists who replace the Union Jack with the 50 stars of the Union touch on our uncomfortable role as the best friend of superpowers past and present. Indeed, separation anxiety has come to be a meaning associated with the flag.

When Gough Whitlam helped raise the flag as a political issue he said the new one ought to have the Southern Cross. Whether this was Whitlam's preference, or he just wanted to spur discussion, is not clear.

Perhaps he harboured an historical affection for the Eureka Flag, with its dark blue field, bold cross and stars. Political affinities were there with the stockade on the Ballarat gold