Book Review: “Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation” By Melissa Harper and Richard White (eds.)

On 9 October 2000, Kerry Jones and Harold Scruby debated if the Australian flag should be changed on Howard Sattler’s 2SM radio program. The dramatis personae touched on the expected topics, weighing the merits of maintaining tradition against ensuring that national symbols are relevant. The debate ended on a humorous note when Scruby asked Jones, ‘how many stars are on the Australian flag?’ The question caught her off guard, and she tried to deflect it, perhaps buying time as she tried to create a mental image. Are there four or five stars in the Southern Cross? Is it the same as New Zealand’s flag? After much goading, she eventually guessed five. There are six.

It was droll to see a professional defender of the Australian flag unable to answer a fundamental question about its design but also instructive. As Elizabeth Kwan’s thoughtful chapter in Symbols of Australia shows, the flag is far more than coloured cloth. It has ‘always invited controversy’.

In 2015, I ran a large survey with the Institute for Culture and Society on alternatives to the current flag. The most popular designs included other symbols that are discussed in the book: kangaroo, wattle, and most frequently, the Southern Cross. I also received many passionate complaints about running the survey at all. These often included the claim that our troops fought for that flag at Gallipoli. The fact that the blue ensign only replaced the Union Jack as the national flag in 1954 did not seem to matter.

Symbols of Australia was published by NewSouth

The desire to defend the national flag does not require a deep knowledge of its history or design. The thugs who took part in the 2005 Cronulla Riots draped themselves in Australian flags. Weeks later, a gang harassed festival-goers at the Big Day Out if they refused to kiss the flag. How many in either group would know how many stars there are or when it became the national flag?

Like Jones, their passion is not for aesthetics but for a meaning they have attached to the flag. When victorious athletes drape the flag around their shoulders, it means something very different from the ardent anti-vaxxer who brandishes it at a ‘freedom’ march, or the school child who raises it before morning assembly. As the editors note, ‘an effective symbol papers over disagreements’.

The national flag is the most obvious symbol of Australia, but it is far from the only one. In Symbols of Australia, edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White, an impressive line-up of academics, journalists, and artists explore the history and changing meaning of twenty-eight Australian symbols. Originally published in 2010 by UNSW Press, the new version includes updated chapters and two new ones: Iain McCalman on the Great Barrier Reef; and Judith Brett on the humble ‘democracy sausage’.

For some authors, the chance to revisit their chapters was particularly helpful. Robert Crawford was able to bring the story of Holden to its sad conclusion, with the company dissolving after Joe Hockey infamously dared General Motors to leave Australia. Roslynn Haynes’ lucid chapter on Uluru now includes the successful campaign for a climbing ban and the inspiration this sacred site gave to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Other authors did not have the benefit of such significant events to report on. Have Australian attitudes towards gum trees or lifesavers changed all that much in the last decade?

Politicians have eagerly attempted to link themselves with many of the symbols that are examined in this book. Many have tried to utilise Anzac symbolism, none more so than the ‘little digger’, Billy Hughes, prime minister during much of World War I. Paul Keating and John Howard attempted to change and preserve the flag respectively. Leaders of all stripes have taken part in the ritual cosplay of wearing an Akubra when leaving their city electorates to visitregional Australia. A study of political appropriation of national symbols would be a fascinating project in itself, but, pleasingly, this work is broader. It is interested in the larger relationship between the symbols and the nation they are supposed to represent.    

National symbols can certainly be commercialised but can they be created for this purpose? The editors conclude in the negative and Foster’s beer, despite literally claiming in a 2000 campaign that ‘I am Australia’, is a noticeable omission. Fosters features prominently in the Barry McKenzie films of the 1970s and again when the Simpsons visited Australia in the 1990s, but this is too contrived and outward-facing for the editors. Like the briefly popular, flag-wearing cleaning products salesman Big Kev, perhaps Fosters tries too hard. Instead, they turn to the humble pavlova, despite the inevitable outcry from New Zealanders, as an authentic Australian symbol.   

There is some irony that Australia has no distinctive claim to its most enduring symbol, the Southern Cross. The ancient constellation predates European colonisation, is visible throughout the southern hemisphere, and features in the flags of New Zealand, Brazil, PNG, Samoa, as well as Australia. Despite this, it has been appropriated and indigenised with an enduring tenacity. On the Eureka flag, it was waved by radicals in the nineteenth century just as conservatives saluted it on the blue ensign in the twentieth. In this century, it is both the most common Australian tattoo and the most frequently removed.

Its appeal transcends political groups – the definition of an effective symbol. While militant unionists brandied it in the 1998 waterfront disputes, two decades later Pope Benedict XVI blessed it in the form of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, a painting that hangs in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral. The religious element is significant. As Jane Taylor notes, it was only ever a cross to European eyes. For hundreds of generations, First Nations in Australia and South America looked to the stars and saw something very different.

Our Lady of the Southern Cross, Help of Christians, hangs in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

Mark McKenna’s chapter, the standout in a fine collection, explores the complex symbolism of the Crown. Perhaps the most malleable symbol in the book, it is ‘abstract and concrete, at once foreign and indigenous’. It entered Australia through what he perspicaciously calls a ‘kind of sorcery’. James Cook stood on Possession Island in 1770, performed a special ritual, and the traditional county of First Nations somehow became Crown land.

Of all the symbols in this book, the Crown is the only one that faces formal opposition (the Australian Republic Movement) and that one day may be legally expunged. Its historic flexibility shows what a difficult task this is. Despite the seeming contradictions, it has morphed from a symbol of British imperialism to one of Australian democracy. As Anne Twomey succinctly writes, it is a ‘chameleon Crown’.

Like the editors and other authors, McKenna accepts the Andersonian dictum that all communities larger than primordial villages are imagined. There is, however, great power in these collective imaginations. Especially for those who would like to see the British crown removed (or the flag changed), the first task is ‘to understand, rather than mock’ the mystical power of the symbol.

The editors overreach in claiming that Australians are ‘particularly enthusiastic’ about symbols and have ‘more than their fair share’. From Ernest Gellner to Eric Hobsbawm, scholars generally agree that the nation, in the formal, diplomatic sense that the editors use the term, is both a novel and modern construction. Australians were not ‘relative latecomers to nation-making’, as the editors claim. They had over half a century head start on the dozens of nations created in the decades after World War II. From official government designs, to landscapes, flora, fauna, and the things we wear and eat; all nations are in the symbol business.

Australia is not uniquely a ‘land of symbols’ and in 2018 Canadian scholars had no difficulty in publishing a similar work on their national symbols. That does not lessen the worthiness of this collection. Symbols of Australia provides a fascinating insight into how twenty-eight Australian symbols came to assume a prominent place in the collective imagination.

You can find the book HERE.

Benjamin T. Jones is a Senior lecturer in history at Central Queensland University and a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Studies Institute. He has published extensively on Australian politics and history with a focus on national identity and republicanism. His most recent books are This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future (Redback, 2018) and History in a Post-Truth World: Theory and Praxis (Routledge, 2020).