Australian Flags and the White Fleet


  • What are the protocols governing flags?

  • Why do we have a red flag, and a blue flag?

  • Where should each colour flag be flown, and why?

Our flag serves as a visible symbol of our nation. It unites us as one nation, consisting of many backgrounds, and united by shared values and ideals, with a respect for each other and the diversity of nationalities that make up our wonderful nation. Most people today are unaware that we Aussies actually have two flags: The ubiquitous blue flag, and the Red flag often referred to as the Federation flag or the Red Duster, as it was flown on Federation day and for many years after that. In fact, our ANZAC diggers fought mostly under the red Federation flag.

Although the red ensign is traditionally flown on British war ships, it is not the same as our Federation flag. The dimensions are different, as described in the image on the right. Our Federation flag was adopted by Australia as a symbol of our becoming a Federation of States in 1901.

Before January 1, 1901, Australia consisted of six British Colonies: NSW, QLD, VIC, TAS, SA, WA. South Australia incorporated and governed the Northern Territory. At Federation there was no Australian Capital Territory. When the six British colonies were created as states with a Federal government we needed a flag to symbolize our unity. We chose the red ensign with the 6-pointed star.

Later on, it was decided to add another point to the large star under the Union Jack to represent the Territories. There is plenty of debate about which star we should adopt for our Federation flag, but this debate is wasted. The naval red ensign and the Federation flag are two totally different flags. Those Aussies who believe we must manage our affairs as sovereign, independent people according to Common Law have adopted the 6-pointed star. However, this is a matter of choice. There are no hard and fast rules governing this. 

The red Federation Flag is regarded as the “people’s flag”. That is, it can be flown by the general public on their homes, in parades and rallies, and anywhere we feel it represents our pride in our country and heritage. Images of the flag can be used on clothing, as long as it’s not defaced or covered, and the main symbolic elements are identifiable. It is not however officially recommended to drape it around yourself to ensure it does not touch the ground. However, the rules have been bent, especially lately, and we now see the flag design on clothing and even footwear. We Aussies are known for our irreverent love of thumbing our noses at officialdom, so wearing our flag as clothing is seen as a sign of showing our national pride while ignoring the protests of the purists! The Aussie larrikin ethos is alive and well.

A Brief History

(Condensed from an article at: https://www.anfa-national.org.au/history-of-our-flag/) 

9th Jul 1900: The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (UK) is passed on 5th July 1900 and given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on the 9th July, 1900. After almost 40 years of discussion, debates and a referendum, it is official that Australia will become a federation of states, with a Federal Government authorised by the Crown, which is represented by a Governor General.

1st Jan 1901: Australia officially becomes a Federation. At a public ceremony held in Centennial Park, Sydney. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act is Proclaimed and Gazetted. This is when the Constitution became law for all Australians.

Apr 1901: The Commonwealth Government of Australia announces a Federal Flag design competition. The competition receives 32,823 entries with the winning design being won by five almost identical entries. Each of the 5 winners shared the £200 (almost $30,000 today) prize money.

3rd Sep 1901: The Australian National Flag (Blue Ensign) becomes the official national flag of Australia. The Red Ensign becomes the flag of Merchant Naval Shipping.

Feb 1903: King Edward VII approves the design for the official Australian flag (Blue Ensign) and the Australian Red Ensign for Australia’s merchant ships and private pleasure craft. Minor changes are made to the points of the stars on the Southern Cross. The red ensign was also adopted by the general public as “their” Federation flag. It was flown by most people on January 1, 1901, and for many years afterwards.

Dec 1908: The Australian Army gives Military Order, No 58/08 to direct all military establishments (Stations) to fly the “new” Australian flag (Blue Ensign). See below for more information.

Mar 1934: Commonwealth Government Gazette No 18 features a line drawing of the exact specifications of the official blue Australian flag and the merchant shipping flag, the Australian Red Ensign.

Jun 1947: Letter from Howard Beale MP to flag makers to request they re-direct their manufacture to the Australian National Flag (Blue Ensign) rather than the Red Ensign (except for its proper use in shipping).

Dec 1953: Parliament passes 1953 Flags Act. The flag (Blue Ensign) is confirmed by legislation as the chief national symbol by law, custom and tradition and its official title becomes the “Australian National Flag”. The Act is officially signed-off by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the following months

Aug 1996: The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, Sir William Deane, proclaims 3 September as “Australian National Flag Day” to commemorate the day in 1901 on which the Australian National Flag was first flown.

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