The Flag That Never Was; The Untold Story of Australia’s ‘Almost Identity’

Believe it or not, the classic blue, white and red flag that adorns our parliament house was almost very different. In fact, the country very nearly copped a rather intrusive red number instead, one that could’ve painted us in a decidedly different light. Alas, it didn’t win out and the famed flag that we all have mixed feelings about remains atop Canberra’s highest political point, but that doesn’t make the story of Australia’s ‘almost flag’ any less interesting.

It’s the premise of a new book by Man of Many favourite Ben Pobjie, exploring the great runners-up of history; the people who scaled the highest of highs, only to find someone had beaten them there. Entitled Second Best: The Amazing Untold Histories of the Greatest Runners-Up, Pobjie’s new release delves deep into the silver medal world, from Buzz Aldrin following footsteps on the moon, to Australia’s second Prime Minister whose name everyone keeps forgetting. It’s a collection of incredible achievements that just missed the mark, a bit like the almost-flag we very nearly scored in the early part of the 20th century.

Below you’ll an extract from Ben Pobjie’s new book, Second Best, that reveals the true story of the flag that never was. You can pick up a copy of Second Best via the following link.

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Second Best

The Flag That Never Was

What does the Australian flag mean to you? This is an excellent question to pose to schoolchildren you don’t like very much and want to keep busy while you duck out for a smoke. Every Australian probably has a different answer to the question: to some, it means freedom; to others, oppression; to still others, it means someone’s won at the Olympics. Its versatility is one of its strengths.

But of course, there is a very specific meaning to the flag, inasmuch as each of its elements was chosen for a particular reason. The large star on the right is the ‘Commonwealth Star’, representing the states that make up the nation and, to a much lesser extent, the territories. The collection of stars on the left is the Southern Cross, representing the fact that when it is night-time in Australia, stars are sometimes visible. And the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner represents the fact that Australia is one-quarter British through its maternal grandmother. Together with all these ingredients – states, stars and Britain – make up glorious, modern Australia.

The flag that we know and have complicated feelings about today came into being in 1901 after the Barton Government declared a nationwide search to find a flag for the newly minted Federation. Opinion was divided on the chosen design from the beginning. The Age newspaper called it ‘a brave and inspiring picture’, and The Argus opined that the new flag would become ‘the emblem upon which the millions of the free people of the Commonwealth will gaze with a thrill of national pride.’ However, The Bulletin magazine was less enamoured of the young nation’s baby ensign, calling the flag ‘a staled rechauffe of the British flag’, and declaring belligerently, ‘That bastard flag is a true symbol of the bastard state of Australian opinion.’ This was strong language at a time when ladies were much more prone to fainting in shock than they are now. But no matter how magazines might’ve fumed, the flag was the flag, and that was that.

The Barton Government’s nationwide competition wasn’t the first attempt at choosing a flag for Australia. The British who first claimed Australia for their empire had of course done so under the popular Flag System, whereby whoever stuck a flag in something first got to own it. So the Union Jack had been the default Aussie flag for many years before Federation. In 1823, in defiance of the Flag System, Captains John Nicholson and John Bingle created the National Colonial Flag in an attempt to instil pride in all of the criminals and alcoholics who called New South Wales home. The National Colonial Flag also featured the Union Jack in the top left corner, while the other three quadrants were occupied by empty space, to symbolise the vast emptiness of the Australian landscape/soul. The quadrants were divided by the red cross of St George, so that anyone who saw the flag would understand that Australia was not only British, but also English. The red cross was decorated with four stars – an attractive but horribly astronomically inaccurate representation of the Southern Cross.

In 1831, Captain Nicholson followed up his smash hit debut with a difficult second album: the Federation Flag, named in honour of the thing that wouldn’t happen for another seventy years. The Federation Flag was exactly the same as the National Colonial Flag except the cross was blue instead of red, so it was a bit rich of Nicholson to pretend that he had come up with anything new. Still, the blue cross did make the flag slightly less English and slightly more depressing, so that was an improvement.

In 1854, one of the most famous Australian flags reared its star-spangled head: the Eureka Flag. Featuring a white cross appointed with stars on a blue background, the flag was the symbol of the Eureka Stockade, where the Australian spirit of democracy and being hopelessly outgunned was born. The Eureka Flag, like the Colonial and Federation editions, depicted the Southern Cross, but once again it was astronomically inaccurate. The first flag to display knowledge of the night sky was the Anti-Transportation League Flag, which resembled the current version except for the absence of the Federation Star and the Southern Cross being yellow – possibly to symbolise the cowardice of those who used penal transportation to solve their problems.

The 1850s also brought forth the Murray River Flag, for some reason still used by boats traversing the Murray River system. This flag is basically the same as the National Colonial Flag, but instead of a plain white background in three quadrants, there are blue and white stripes to represent the Murray, the Murrumbidgee, the Lachlan and the Darling rivers. These stripes are the main reason the Murray River Flag is known by residents of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia as ‘the ugly boat flag’.

All of these flags had their virtues, but once it was decided that Australia should be an independent united nation, minds turned towards the idea of a brand new ensign. Naturally, many Australians didn’t see why we couldn’t just keep using the British flag that had done so well for us over the years. After all, it was the Union Jack that flew over Port Jackson on 26 January 1788: was that not a sacred day for all Australians apart from the ones who were here first? If it was good enough for Arthur Phillip, the thinking went, it was good enough for us. And anyway, making a new one seemed an awful lot like effort and it really was terribly hot.

But despite the fact that most Australians saw Federation as less the birth of a nation than a collection of branch offices undertaking an efficiency drive, technically Australia was to become a country on 1 January 1901, and so technically it needed a new scrap of cloth to run up the pole. The need became even more urgent after the British Government officially requested that the fledgling Australian Government come up with their own flag, thinking the continued hijacking of the Union Jack to be in rather bad taste.

The Melbourne Herald had already run a flag contest in 1900, offering 25 pounds to whoever came up with the best design.The rules stipulated that the flags entered must include the Union Jack and the Southern Cross, as the editors of the Herald believed that without these inclusions on the flag nobody would know where Australia was or who it really belonged to.

Later that year, the Review of Reviews for Australasia – a Melbourne paper targeted at people who like strangely unwieldy titles – ran another flag competition, without the requirement for a Union Jack and Southern Cross. Although it did suggest that anyone who wasn’t some kind of Asian traitor would definitely want to put a Union Jack and Southern Cross in it: ‘A flag, perhaps, which omitted these symbols might have small chances of success; yet it seems unwise to fetter the competition with any such absolute limitations,’ it wrote, like a boss who tells you that wearing a tie isn’t technically mandatory and if you want to turn up to work looking like a tramp that’s perfectly fine.

In 1901, the government announced its own contest and the Review of Reviews agreed to merge its competition with it, lest the government rain bloody vengeance down upon the editorial staff. In total there were 32,823 entries, which doesn’t sound like a really huge number, but looks a lot bigger when you consider that the entire population of Australia at the time was only about seven hundred. And only a few of them could afford a pencil.

The competition required entrants to submit two designs: a red ensign for the merchant service and public use, and a blue ensign for naval and official use. If you think this seems completely unnecessary, you are right. As our own experience shows us, a country only needs one flag, and having different ones for different kinds of ships is stupid. But as the first draft of the Australian Constitution said, ‘Australia is a nation founded on stupidity’, so everyone had to do the flag twice. To this day there are technically two flags: the blue one to be used by everyone for everything all the time; and the red one to not be used by anyone because nobody knows it exists.

The judges of the competition were Captain Clare, Lieutenant Thompson, Captain Edie, Captain Mitchell and Captain Evans, all upstanding officers who photos of the time show to have been men of impeccable posture, stylish hats and well-groomed moustaches. Upon inspecting the entries, they found that most did indeed include the British flag and the Southern Cross – at least once they had eliminated, in the words of the Review, ‘those designs which would have served for kindergarten object lessons, decorations for a Chinese pagoda, or patterns for cheap linoleums’. This is a great shame: if bigotry had not intruded on the process, the Australian flag might indeed look like a decoration for a Chinese pagoda, and who can honestly say that wouldn’t be an improvement?

We know, of course, which design won the contest: the one which took the innovative idea of doing exactly what was requested by the authorities stuck the Union Jack in one corner, put the stars of the Cross next to it, and slapped on another big star to fill the rest of the space. You can see the creative juices at work in the design. What could be more original, once you’ve put five stars on a flag, than putting on another one?

In fact, so original was the winning design that five different people came up with it and had to share the prize money. They were: Leslie John Hawkins, an optician’s apprentice; Egbert John Nuttall, an architect; Ivor Evans, a Melbourne schoolboy who was only fourteen and therefore really shouldn’t have been allowed to enter; Annie Dorrington, a Perth artist who was a woman and who it’s pretty bloody surprising was allowed to enter; and William Stevens, a ship’s officer from New Zealand, making the fact he was allowed to enter literally treason.

But the winners of the Australian flag contest should not interest us to any great extent: their design was so dull that pretty much anyone could’ve thought of it and so simple that a fourteen-year-old boy – nature’s stupidest species – did think of it.

No, what we’re interested in is who didn’t win the contest. To declare a ‘second placegetter’ in the race to sum up Australia’s soul in fabric is slightly problematic, as you might expect in a competition that had five winners. There was no official ranking by which we could definitively say that one particular design came second. In a way, as the winners all came equal first, the other 32,818 all came equal second. It’s just that that makes for an extremely crowded podium.

But there were certain entrants among the runners-up that stand out. One was the old Federation Flag, which was submitted to the competition by Edmund Barton himself: the inaugural prime minister tasting bitter defeat for the first but not the last time. This attempt to hark back to the halcyon days of the 1830s was doomed to failure: apparently that was too unoriginal even for the judges.

There were many aspiring flagonistas who showed far more imagination in devising their entries, though. One of the strongest runners-up was a flag that used the Union Jack in a different way: the British flag was featured with its central cross opened up to create a white background, in the centre of which was a map of Australia and New Zealand. In the middle of the map was the Australian coat of arms, while around it were arranged the national emblems of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And then around the outside of them were four photographs of steamships, raising the intriguing question, ‘What kind of complete lunatic came up with this?’ But despite the obvious mania involved in the creation, one can’t deny that our history may have turned out very differently if every time a schoolchild was required to draw the flag, they had to do photorealistic sketches of four steamships in addition to a map, a coat of arms and assorted flags of foreign nations. It’s also possible that the nation would have developed a much more powerful cultural association with steamships; certainly the designer of the flag seemed to think we already had one. Sadly, their flag was rejected on the grounds of prohibitive sewing costs.

A more realistic vision was seen in the flag that resembled the winner, except that instead of the Federation star, a huge kangaroo was interpolated among the stars of the Southern Cross, to symbolise the enormous kangaroo who lives in the sky and watches over us all at night.

It’s arguable whether the kindly sky kangaroo would’ve made a better flag, but it’s certainly difficult to argue against the entry that featured a variety of native animals playing cricket. Could anything sum up this country more eloquently? Our own unique wildlife, playing our favourite sport: it couldn’t have been more quintessentially Australian if it had depicted a drunken shearer ignoring racism while having a melanoma removed. (We should remember, at this juncture, that Australia is the country that had a national cricket team almost twenty-four years before it technically existed: when you think about it, cricket is such an obvious a choice for the flag that not putting it on seems practically criminal.)

Why did the judges reject this design? It’s impossible to say. Perhaps they found anthropomorphic animals unnerving and spent their spare time campaigning for a ban on the work of . Perhaps they thought that foregrounding the leisure activities of the nation would make us seem unserious in the eyes of other countries and lead to teasing. Perhaps they were just really horny for stars. We can’t ask them now: all we can know for sure is that they were wrong.

Because while often the tale of a second placegetter is a story of what that runner-up missed out on, this is a story about what we missed out on. What we lost. When we decided to proudly fly the quarter-sized Union Jack and various stars both real and fictional, we decided that we did not want to live the grand adventure of a nation with cricket-playing marsupials flapping in the wind at every major event. And if that’s not an opportunity for a better world tossed in the garbage, I don’t know what is.

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Pobjie studied history at the University of Western Sydney before his lust for glamour led him to comedy writing. He is known for his TV columns in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and political satire for New Matilda, Crikey and the ABC, among others. He is the author of Aussie Aussie Aussie, Error Australis, SuperChef and The Book of Bloke and has written for the TV shows Reality Check and The Unbelievable Truth. He lives in Melbourne with his wife, three children and a rising sense of panic.