The Red Ensign Flag

A popular contention of the OPCA movement in Australia is that the Blue Ensign is a “corporate flag” while the true national flag is the Red Ensign. It is largely connected to misconceptions regarding the changes that occurred due to the Royal Style and Titles Act 1953, and 1973, and the introduction of the Great Seal of Australia.  The inclusion of the “maritime admiralty law” myth originating in the US Posse Comitatus movement leads adherents to believe that the Blue Ensign remains a maritime flag (as it was originally), and it follows that allegiance to this flag is allegiance to a corporate entity acting under maritime admiralty law. 

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The pseudo legal belief seems to have its origin the writings of Steven Spiers, and his United Kingdom of Australia, but has since been adopted by many other groups, including Rodney Culleton‘s Great Australian Party, and many among the anti-mandate and anti-lockdown protesters during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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What is the Australian merchant navy flag, the red ensign? And why do anti-government groups use it?:

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RSL Condemns Misuse of National Flag and Red Ensign:

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A similar ideology exists in Canada regarding the Red Ensign, described as “Canada’s equivalent of the Confederate flag”: “Former Canadian flag, the Red Ensign, gets new, darker life as far-right symbol.”

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The history of the National Flag

In the 1901 Federal Flag Design Competition, each competitor was required to submit two coloured sketches, a Red Ensign for the merchant service and public use, and a Blue Ensign for naval and official use. Essentially, they chose the design of the Victorian Red Ensign and blue Flag of Victoria, (from 1870–1877) with the addition of a large star – the Commonwealth Star – beneath the Union Jack, its six points symbolising the federating colonies. (Later, in 1908 a seventh point was added which represented Australian territories.)

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Although the ensigns were adopted by the Commonwealth Government, and memorandums were issued as to their proper usage, the British Union Jack still continued dominance to a large extent, such as in schools in most States. Even as far as the 1920’s, an Australian ensign, unless accompanied by the British Union Jack, was seen as a disloyal symbol, aligned to various nationalist, republican and other anti-British movements of the time. 

Uncertainty as to which flag is the appropriate national flag continued for some time. During the interwar period, these questions were a constant source of frustration for public servants, but by 1924 there was agreement that the Union Jack should take precedence as the national flag. The Blue Ensign was for Commonwealth government buildings, but could be used on state government buildings – but not state schools – if the state ensign was not available. There were no restrictions on the Red Ensign or the Union Jack: these were the flags state schools, private organisations and individuals could fly. 

The following memorandum from the Prime Minister’s Department dated 6 March 1939, outlined the appropriate flag flying procedures, citing the 1924 agreement. 

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However, in 1940, Victoria forced the Commonwealth’s hand, challenging the assumption that the Blue Ensign was for governments and not people by passing the Education (Patriotic Ceremonies) Act 1940 allowing state schools to fly the Blue Ensign. 

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Following this, in a Press Release on 15 March 1941, Prime Minister Robert Menzies stated “there should be no unnecessary restriction placed on the flying of the Blue Ensign on shore” and removed all previous restrictions as to its use by the public generally. (See Press Release Memorandum from Secretary, Prime Ministers Department to Secretary, Department of External Affairs dated 28 February 1941. Australian Archives, ACT (A981/1: Def 220). Prime Minister Ben Chifley issued a similar statement in 1947.

But it wasn′t until the Flags Act 1953 (enacted 1954) was passed by the Menzies Government that Australia finally had an official national flag, or rather, one that was required to be flown in a superior position to any other national flag (including the Union Jack). The Flags Act 1954 formally adopted the Blue Ensign as Australia′s national flag, and the Act was assented to by Queen Elizabeth II on her first visit to Australia on 15 April 1954, the first Act of the Australian Parliament to receive assent by the Monarch rather than the Governor General.

Finally, more than 53 years after the first design was hoisted, Australia had an official national flag.

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Some of the finest academic literature that exists regarding the historical account of Australia’s national flag can be found in “Finding the Flag’s History Mediating the Maze of Misinformation and Mythmaking” by Historian Dr Elizabeth Kwan, and “Filibuster: The Century-long Australian Flag Debate” by Ralph Kelly.