Sean Jacobs is the co-founder of New Guinea Commerce – a website committed to governance, growth and next generation leadership in the Indo-Pacific.


Labor MP Tim Watts has recently emerged as Australia’s leading anti-flag spokesman. His thoughts echo those of a thin group of flag-changers occasionally emerging to propose amendments to Australia’s pinnacle national symbol.

The motivation is both predictable and simple – because Australia has changed we must change the flag. ‘In many ways,’ Watts recently wrote in an SBS opinion piece, ‘our flag reflects the country we once were, not the nation we have become today.’

To look at Australia this way, however, commits to poor thinking and vastly simplifies how Australia is seen within our region. It also fails to acknowledge the role of Indigenous Australia in our nation’s chief national symbol.

Watts points out that in 1901 – the year the flag was first flown – Prime Minister Edmund Barton also introduced the Immigration Restriction Act, better known as the White Australia Policy. ‘Asian Australians who had migrated to Australia had no pathway to citizenship’, writes Watts. ‘Indigenous Australians who had been here for tens of thousands of years weren’t even counted in our census.’ From these comments it’s tempting to think that, in the wake of hoisting a new flag, our foreign relations soured and perceptions in Asia declined.

Yet the reality is much more nuanced. In 1905 Barton himself, for instance, received Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun for mediating a solution as part of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. Japanese officers, incredibly, paraded in front of 40,000 spectators at Centennial Park, with the Sydney Morning Herald writing that the northern visitors were ‘not strangers, but allies and friends.’ As the late Geoffrey Bolton observed of Barton’s Japanese accolade, ‘It was a curious distinction for the architect of the White Australia policy.’

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