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A new flag for an independent nation

The Australian flag.
The Australian flag. Photo: Lachlan Fearnley
Postcard with an image of a koala climbing a flag pole which has the Australian flag at the top. There is a sprig of holly and a spray of wattle at the base of the flag pole. Text across the bottom reads 'Christmas greetings from the Australian War Contingent Association., London 1916.'  - click to view larger image
‘Christmas greetings from the Australian War Contingent Association’ postcard, 1916. State Library of Victoria

From 1788 until 1954 Australia's national flag was the Union Jack, a legacy of Australia's enduring relationship with Britain.

With Federation in 1901, a competition was held to design the new shipping ensigns Australia required as an independent nation.

The winning design featured a Union Jack in the top left corner, the Southern Cross and a Commonwealth star whose points represented the six federating states. When flown with the blue or the red ensign, the Union Jack always took precedence.

The passing of the Flags Act in 1953 made the blue ensign Australia's official flag, but only from 1964 did it fly alone from Parliament House.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags were proclaimed official flags in 1995, after Indigenous sprinter Cathy Freeman ran a victory lap with the Aboriginal flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

Torres Strait Islander flag

While the Aboriginal flag is recognised locally and internationally as a symbol of Indigenous pride and the continuing struggle for justice, the Torres Strait Islander flag is less well-known.

The colours of the Torres Strait Islander flag, designed in 1992, symbolise land (green), sea (blue), people (black) and peace (white). The flag features a traditional headdress (dhari), representing the Torres Strait Islander people, and a five pointed star, representing the five major island groups.

Flag composed of a central blue band, with a white headdress motif and five pointed star, and bordered by green bands top and bottom.
The Torres Strait Islander flag. National Museum of Australia

Different interpretations

In December 2005, a week after the Cronulla riots, an anti-racism rally was held in Sydney. A number of protesters stood in silence with their heads wrapped in Australian flags, symbolising the association of the flag with blind patriotism. Images of this protest were later used by newspapers in articles about far-right nationalist groups hijacking the Australian flag.

This misrepresentation demonstrates how easily images and symbols can be interpreted differently, depending on context and point of view.

Nine people stand with arms crossed and their heads wrapped in Australian flags.
A comment on ignorant, blind 'patriotism'. Photo: Gavin Gatenby

In our collection

Pre-federation Australian flag from the Klondike goldfieldsA double sided, hand-painted flag depicting on both sides a kangaroo and an emu either side of a shield, set against a blue background. The shield is broken into four sections showing a sheep, a sailing ship, a sheaf of wheat and a pick and shovel. The stars of the Southern Cross separate the quadrants and a rising sun appears a...
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