The flag of Australia is a defaced blue ensign: a blue field with the Union Flag in the canton (upper hoist quarter), and a large white seven-pointed star known as the Commonwealth Star in the lower hoist quarter. The fly contains a representation of the Southern Cross constellation, made up of five white stars - one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars.
The flag's original design (with a six-pointed Commonwealth Star) was chosen in 1901 from entries in a worldwide competition held following Federation, and was first flown in Melbourne on September 3rd, 1901; this date has been proclaimed as Australian National Flag Day. A slightly different design was approved by King Edward VII in 1902. Over the next few years, the exact specifications of the flag were changed several times both intentionally and as a result of confusion. The current specifications were formally gazetted in 1934, and in 1954 the flag became recognized by, and legally defined in, the Flags Act 1953, as the “Australian National Flag”. In addition, there are other official flags representing Australia, its people and core functions of government.
The Union Flag is thought locally to symbolize Australia's history as six British colonies and the principles upon which the Australian Federation is based, although a more historic view sees its inclusion in the design as demonstrating loyalty to the British Empire.
The Commonwealth Star originally had only six points, representing the six federating colonies. However, this changed in 1908 when a seventh point was added to symbolize the Territory of Papua and any future territories. Another rationale for the change was to match the star used on the Coat of Arms, which was created in the same year. The star is also known as the Federation Star. The Commonwealth Star does not have any relation to Beta Centauri, despite that star's coincidental location in the sky and its brightness.
The Southern Cross is one of the most distinctive constellations visible in the Southern Hemisphere, and has been used to represent Australia since the early days of British settlement. Ivor Evans, one of the flag's designers, intended the Southern Cross to refer also to the four moral virtues ascribed to the four main stars by Dante: justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. The number of points on the stars of the Southern Cross on today's Australian flag differs from the original competition-winning design, on which they ranged between five and nine points each, representing their relative brightness in the night sky. In order to simplify manufacture, the British Admiralty standardized the four larger outer stars at seven points each, leaving the smaller middle star with five points. This change was officially gazetted on 23 February 1903. A complete specification for the current design was published in the Commonwealth Gazette in 1934.
Guidelines for flying the flag are laid out in the 1953 Flags Act and in a pamphlet entitled “The Australian National Flag“, which is published by the Australian Government on an infrequent basis. The guidelines say that the Australian National Flag is allowed to be flown on every day of the year, and that it “should be treated with respect and dignity it deserves as the nation's most important national symbol”
The National Flag must always be flown in a position superior to that of any other flag or ensign when flown in Australia or on Australian territory, and it should always be flown aloft and free. The flag must be flown in all government buildings and displayed in polling stations when there is a national election or referendum. Private pleasure craft can fly either the Red Ensign or the Australian National Flag. The British Blue Ensign can be flown on an Australian owned ship instead of the Australian Flag if the owner has a warrant valid under British law.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet also advises that the flag should only be flown during daylight hours, unless it is illuminated. Two flags should not be flown from the same flag-pole. The flag should not be displayed upside down under any circumstances, not even to express a situation of distress. The flag is not to be placed or dropped on the ground, nor should it be used to cover an object in the lead-up to an unveiling ceremony, or to hide other material. Flags that have decayed or faded should not be displayed.
According to a government publication, old or decayed flags should be disposed of in private “in a dignified way“; a method given as an example is to cut the flag into small pieces before being placed in the waste. When the flag is flown at half mast, it should be recognizably at half-mast, for example, a third of the way down from the top of the pole. The Australian Flag should never be flown half mast at night. Flags are flown at half-mast on government buildings on the following: On the death of the sovereign - from the time of announcement of the death up to and including the funeral. On the day the accession of the new sovereign is proclaimed, it is customary to raise the flag to the top of the mast from 11 am. On the death of a member of the royal family. On the death of the governor-general or a former governor-general. On the death of a distinguished Australian citizen. Flags in any locality may be flown at half-mast on the death of a notable local citizen or on the day, or part of the day, of their funeral. On the death of the head of state of another country with which Australia has diplomatic relations - the flag would be flown on the day of the funeral. On ANZAC Day the flag is flown at half-mast until noon. On Remembrance Day flags are flown at peak until 10.30 am, at half-mast from 10.30 am to 11.03 am, then at peak for the remainder of the day.
The Australian National Flag may be used for commercial or advertising purposes without formal permission as long as the flag is used in a dignified manner and reproduced completely and accurately; it should not be defaced by overprinting with words or illustrations, it should not be covered by other objects in displays, and all symbolic parts of the flag should be identifiable. It also must sit first (typically, left) where more than one flag is used. There have been several attempts to make desecration of the Australian flag a crime. In 1953, during the second reading debate on the Flag Act, the leader of the opposition, Arthur Calwell, unsuccessfully called for provisions to be added to the bill to criminalize desecration. Michael Cobb introduced private member’s bills in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992 to ban desecration, but on each occasion the bill lapsed. In 2002, the leader of the National Party, John Anderson, proposed to introduce laws banning desecration of the Australian flag, a call that attracted support from some parliamentarians both in his own party and the senior coalition partner, the Liberal Party. However, the Prime Minister, John Howard, rejected the calls stating that “...in the end I guess it's part of the sort of free speech code that we have in this country.” In 2003, the Australian Flags (Desecration of the Flag) Bill was tabled in Parliament by Trish Draper without support from Howard and subsequently lapsed. In 2006, following a flag-burning incident during the 2005 Cronulla Ritos and a burnt flag display by a Melbourne artist, Liberal MP Browyn Bishop introduced the Protection of the Australian National Flag (Desecration of the Flag) Bill 2006. This bill sought to make it a criminal offence to willfully destroy or otherwise mutilate the Flag in circumstances where a reasonable person would infer that the destruction or mutilation is intended publicly to express contempt or disrespect for the Flag or the Australian Nation. The bill received a second reading but subsequently lapsed and did not go to vote in the House of Representatives.
Before 1901, what is now Australia was six separate British colonies. The Union Flag, as the flag of the British Empire, was first used on Australian soil on 29 April 1770 when Lieutenant James Cook landed at Botany Bay, and it was again used at the start of European settlement of the country on 26 January 1788. It was often used to represent them collectively, and each colony also had its own flag based on the Union Flag. As an Australian national consciousness began to emerge, several flag movements were formed and unofficial new flags came into common usage. Two attempts were made throughout the nineteenth century to design a national flag. The first such attempt was the National Colonial Flag created in 1823-1824 by Captains John Nicholson and John Bingle. This flag consisted of a red cross on a white background, with an eight-point star on each of the four limbs of the cross, while incorporating a Union Flag in the canton.
The most popular national flag of the period was the 1831 Federation Flag, also designed by Nicholson. This flag was the same at the National Colonial Flag, except that the cross was blue instead of resembling that of St. George. Although the flag was designed by Nicholson in 1831, it did not become widely popular until the latter part of the century, when calls for federation began to grow louder. These flags, and many others such as the Eureka Flag (which came into use at the Eureka Stockade in 1854), featured stars representing the Southern Cross. The oldest known flag to show the stars arranged as they are seen in the sky is the Anti-Transportation League Flag, which is similar in design to the present National Flag. The differences were that there was no Commonwealth Star, while the components of the Southern Cross are depicted with eight points and in gold. This flag was only briefly in usage, as two years after the formation of the Anti-Transportation League in 1851, the colonial authorities decided to stop the intake of convicts, so the ATL ceased its activities.
The Eureka Flag is often viewed as the first Australian flag as it was the first notable example of a design that had the Southern Cross while excluding the Union Flag. The Murray River Flag, popular since the 1850s, is still widely used by boats that traverse Australia's main waterway. It is the same as the National Colonial Flag, except that the white background in the three quadrants other the canton were replaced with four alternating blue and white stripes, representing the four major rivers that run into the Murray River.
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