A Brief History of the Australian Flag
Many Australians think that the flag we have has been the same since 1901.
While the flag has undergone several physical changes, it has had many changes with regard to usage.
People are surprised when they find out that the Blue Flag that everyone is so familiar with only came into vogue in the second half of the 20th century.
It was the Red flag that was the predominant flag used by the public and defence forces, while the Blue Flag was reserved for the use of the Commonwealth Government.
Another common misconception is that the first flag had the 7 point star to represent the 6 Founding States and Territories. This was a 'spin' applied several years after the first flag.
It surprises, shock and makes some people quite angry when they find out that the 7th point was added when Australia took control of the Territory of Papua in 1908, and the usage of the Blue flag by the public is relatively new.
The Victorian Flag
This flag looks awfully familiar. I think it is fair to say that this flag had a strong influence for the 1900 Australian flag competition.
The First Flag of Australia
In 1900, the Melbourne Herald conducted a design competition in which the entries were required to submit both a red and blue versions, but the rules also stipulated the entries MUST have the Union Jack and Southern Cross. With those rules, and with the influence of the Victorian flag, it is not surprising that 5 almost identical entries were chosen as the winning design. The winners had a 6 pointed Commonwealth Star to represent the 6 States (and contrary to modern belief, the Territories were not included as there were none) while the stars in the Southern Cross all had different numbers of points - five stars of 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 - like the earlier Victorian Flag.
The Blue Ensign was reserved for Commonwealth Government use until The Flags Act 1953.
The First Change
King Edward VII had officially approved the design as the flag of Australia on 11 February 1903. The published version made all the stars in the Southern Cross seven-pointed apart from the smallest, and is the same as the current design except the six-pointed Commonwealth Star. It is ironic that the first change to the flag was to change 4 stars of the Southern Cross to 7 point stars, while the Federation Star remained at 6 -- one for each state. The 7th point for the "Territories" was to come later.
The Territory of Papua
The Federation Star originally had six points, which represented the six founding states. The current seven-pointed Commonwealth Star version was introduced by a proclamation on 8 December 1908 when the seventh point was added. It was specifically added to symbolise the Territory of Papua being placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902.
It is unclear as to when the 7 point symbolism was said to also include the other territories of Australia. At the time of Federation the Northern Territory was part of South Australia and was transferred to the Commonwealth in 1911. The ACT was a part of NSW and was transferred in 1911, with Jervis Bay, being the ACT's access to the sea, was transferred in 1915.
Note: The above1908 to Current blue flag uses the outdated digital British blue colour. The is done deliberately for historical reasons. In the digital era, the Australian Government Style manual has stipulated the use of a brighter blue for digital images. This colour blue has been used in all other images on this site for current Australian Flag.
This is only for digital images on this site. For manufactured flags or flags printed on paper the current flag uses the exact same Panton® and CMYK colour values are used as the British Blue.
Black and White
Many historical photos are not printed in colour but in black and white. Should you be looking at any old photos it is quite easy to see which flag is which. All the coloured crosses on the Union Jack are red, while the background is blue. If the crosses match the background the flag is the red flag.
Usage of the Flag
There have been many adjustments with usage. In some ways it is disturbing in the way it has been used for political reasons.
There can be now doubt that prior to WW2 the Blue Ensign was reserved for the Commonwealth buildings and establishments, and the Red Ensign was available to the public generally
A memo from the Prime Minister of Australia's Department dated 6 March 1939 stated: "the Red Ensign is the flag to be flown by the public generally" and the federal government policy was "The flying of the Commonwealth Blue Ensign is reserved for Commonwealth Government use but there is no reservation in the case of the Commonwealth Merchant Flag, or Red Ensign".
But a decade later, again with Robert Menzies as PM, there was an abrupt flip. The Flags Act 1953 now declared that the Blue Ensign was to now be the national flag and the Red Ensign the flag of the Australian merchant marine.
This status was formalised on 14 February 1954, when Queen Elizabeth II gave Royal Assent to the Flags Act 1953, which had been passed two months earlier. The monarch's Assent was timed to coincide with the Queen's visit to the country and came after she had opened the new session of Parliament.
So why the abrupt flip? Did politics play a part? The Cold War that had started in 1947 was starting to escalate. PM Menzies was pursuing a strong anti-communist agenda and the predominately red flag carried too many communist overtones.
Another point to consider is that red is the colour of the Australian Labor Party. Menzies founded the Liberal Party in 1944, with the Liberal Party's being blue. Is there an avantage in having the national flag the same as the party colour?
It took some time before it was adopted especially as Australians were still technically British until the passing of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948.
Until 1949 there was no such thing as an Australian citizen. Before that, anyone born or naturalised (made a citizen) in Australia was a British subject. People travelling overseas were issued with British passports. This is because at the time of Federation, and until at least the Second World War, most Australians identified themselves as British.
The Union Jack was still regarded as the National flag by many Australians well into the 1970s.
The Australian Defence Force
The Australian Army was formed as the Commonwealth Military Forces in 1901. In 1908, the Australian Army replaced the Union Jack with the blue Australian flag
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was formed on 5 October 1911. The RAN flew the British Royal Navy ensign until 1967.
The Royal Australian Air Force was formed on 31st March 1921. Prior to that, the Australian Flying Corps had been formed in October 1912 and fought in WW1. They RAAF flew the British Royal Air Force ensign until 1948.
The Australian Army was formed as the Commonwealth Military Forces in 1901. While Australians had been involved in military action, such as the Second Boer War, they served under the various pre federation military forces used British and local colonial flags. Before Federation, there not being a distinguishing flag for Australia until the 1901 Federal Flag Design Competition.
In 1908, Australian Army Military Order, No 58/08 ordered the "Australian Ensign" to replace the Union Jack at all military establishments. From 1911 it served as the saluting flag of the Australian army at all reviews and ceremonial parades (M.O.135) with the Union Jack being reserved for "all occasions when a representative of His Majesty the King reviews the Commonwealth forces" (M.O.391).
By traditional British understanding, the blue ensign was reserved for official government use although the red ensign, the popular favourite with the general public, was in military circulation until the 1953 legislation. However the blue flag was also in use meaning the Australian Army served under both the blue and red versions until 1953.
Royal Australian Navy
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) commenced on 5 October 1911. The RAN continued to fly the British flag until the 1st March 1967 when it received the RAN White Ensign.
Royal Australian Air Force
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) commenced on 5 October 1911. It shared the RAF ensign until 1948. In 1982 the red disk was replaced by a red kangaroo in motion. To fit the roundel, the alignment of the Southern Cross was changed.