On 20 February 1903, the flags of the new Australian Commonwealth, recently approved by imperial authorities in London, were published in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette.23 The blue ensign and red merchant flag were the result of a 1901 competition attracting more than 32,000 submissions. Both were unsurprising in their design: the principle elements—the Union Jack in the canton and Southern Cross on the fly—had been anticipated in official and unofficial flags of the nineteenth century. Public commentary had consistently supported the inclusion of the Union Jack to signify Australia’s place in the British Empire and of the Southern Cross as a distinctive marker of global location. The ratification process had been slow but it appeared that the Federation-era slogan of ‘One people, one flag, one destiny’ had definitively materialised in a national emblem.
Today, in a global and post-national context, Australia’s conservative government insists that the national flag is ‘Australia’s foremost national symbol and … an expression of Australian identity and pride’; an emblem of homogenous citizenry and ineluctable sovereignty.24 In reality, the design, meaning and status of the Commonwealth flag remained a matter of widespread confusion for decades after its proclamation. Which of the several Australian flags—the Union Jack, the blue ensign, the red ensign—was pre-eminent, and under what circumstances? Was either the blue or red ensign really a national flag, or were they simply shipping flags? Was there a national flag at all, given the Commonwealth’s status as a division of the British Empire?
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