Flag of Australia

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Geography

 National flag and state ensign. Flag ratio: 1:2
National flag and state ensign. Flag ratio: 1:2
The Australian Flag at full mast.
The Australian Flag at full mast.

The flag of Australia was chosen in 1901 from entries in a worldwide design competition held following Federation. It was approved by Australian and British authorities over the next few years, although the exact specifications of the flag were changed several times both intentionally and as a result of confusion. The current specifications were published in 1934, and in 1954 the flag became legally recognised as the "Australian National Flag". The flag is a defaced Blue Ensign: a blue field with the Union Flag in the upper hoist quarter, and a large white seven-pointed star known as the Commonwealth Star in the lower hoist. 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.

In addition to the Blue Ensign there are several additional Australian flags, including the Aboriginal flag, the Torres Strait Islander flag and the flags of the Defence Forces. The design of the Australian flag is the subject of debate within Australia, with some advocating its redesign in connection with the republican movement.


The official flag of Australia is defined in the Flags Act 1953. The Act became law on 14 February 1954 when Elizabeth II Queen of Australia gave Royal Assent in person. Section 3 of the Act specifies that the Blue Ensign is the "Australian National Flag". The Act specifies the colours and construction details for this flag, and the Australian Red Ensign (also known as the Australian Merchant Flag).


The Australian flag uses three prominent symbols, the Union Flag (often known as the Union Jack), the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross. The Union Flag is commonly thought to reflect Australia's history as a collection of British colonies, although a more historic view sees its inclusion in the design as demonstrating loyalty to the British Empire. The five white stars of the fly of the flag represent the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross (or Crux) is the brightest constellation visible in the Southern Hemisphere and has been used to represent Australia and New Zealand since the early days of British settlement. Each of these stars has seven points except for the smallest star which has only five. 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 large seven-pointed star below the Union Flag is the Commonwealth or Federation Star which represents the federation of the colonies of Australia on 1 January 1901. There is one point for each of the six original states, and one which now represents all of the Commonwealth's internal and external territories.

The blue colour has been described as representing Australia as an island continent, as a symbol of the journey humans had to make to reach Australia, as the blue sky, and as a remnant of the Eureka Flag which also had a blue background.


Construction sheet for the Flag of Australia. The length of the Flag is twice the width.
Construction sheet for the Flag of Australia. The length of the Flag is twice the width.

Under the Flags Act, the Australian National Flag must meet the following specifications:

  1. the Union Jack occupying the upper quarter next the staff;
  2. a large white star (representing the 6 States of Australia and the Territories) in the centre of the lower quarter next the pye and pointing direct to the centre of St George's Cross in the Union Jack;
  3. 5 white stars (representing the Southern Cross) in the half of the flag further from the staff.

The location of the stars is as follows:

  • Commonwealth Star – 7 pointed star, centred in lower hoist.
  • Alpha Crucis – 7 pointed star, straight below centre fly 1/6 up from bottom edge.
  • Beta Crucis – 7 pointed star, 1/4 of the way left and 1/16 up from the centre fly.
  • Gamma Crucis – 7 pointed star, straight above centre fly 1/6 down from top edge.
  • Delta Crucis – 7 pointed star, 2/9 of the way right and 31/240 up from the centre fly.
  • Epsilon Crucis – 5 pointed star, 1/10 of the way right and 1/24 down from the centre fly.

The outer diameter of the Commonwealth Star is 3/10 of the flag's width, while that of the stars in the Southern Cross is 1/7 of the flag's width, except for Epsilon, for which the fraction is 1/12. Each star's inner diameter is 4/9 of the outer diameter. The flag's width is the measurement of the hoist edge of the flag (the distance from top to bottom).

The colours of the flag, although not specified by the Flags Act, have been specified by the Awards and National Symbols Branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Scheme Blue Red White
Pantone 280 185 Safe


Before 1901, Australia was a collection of distinct British colonies. The Union Flag, as the flag of the British Empire, was often used to represent them collectively; and each colony also had its flag based on the Union Flag. 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 (when New South Wales was still the only British colony in Australia), by Captain John Nicholson and Captain John Bingle. The flag never achieved public support. The most popular "national" flag of the period was the 1831 Federation Flag, also designed by Nicholson. The Federation Flag proved immensely popular, and was widely used on the east coast of Australia for over 70 years, particularly by the federation movement. 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.

National Colonial Flag Australian Federation Flag Eureka Flag Anti-Transportation League Flag

After Federation on 1 January 1901, the new Commonwealth Government held a design competition for a new national flag in April. The competition attracted over 32,000 entries, equivalent to around 1% of the Australian population at that time. The designs were judged on seven criteria: loyalty to the Empire, Federation, history, heraldry, distinctiveness, utility and cost of manufacture. The majority of designs incorporated the Union Flag and the Southern Cross, but native animals were also popular. Five almost identical entries were chosen as the winning design, and their designers shared the 200 pounds prize money. They were: Ivor Evans, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy from Melbourne; Leslie John Hawkins, a teenager apprenticed to an optician from Sydney; Egbert John Nuttall, an architect from Melbourne; Annie Dorrington, an artist from Perth; and William Stevens, a ship’s officer from Auckland, New Zealand. The five winners received 40 pounds each.

The flag's initial reception was mixed. The then republican magazine The Bulletin labelled it,

a staled réchauffé of the British flag, with no artistic virtue, no national significance... Minds move slowly: and Australia is still Britain's little boy. What more natural than that he should accept his father's cut-down garments, – lacking the power to protest, and only dimly realising his will. That bastard flag is a true symbol of the bastard state of Australian opinion.

The Flags Act 1953 specified the Blue Ensign as the National Flag of Australia and the Red Ensign as a civil flag.
The Flags Act 1953 specified the Blue Ensign as the National Flag of Australia and the Red Ensign as a civil flag.

On 3 September, 1901, the new Australian flag flew for the first time atop the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. A simplified version of the competition-winning design was officially approved as the Flag of Australia by King Edward VII in 1902. The number of points on the stars of the Southern Cross on today's Australian flag differs from the original design in that the stars varied between five and nine, reflecting the relative brightness of each in the night sky. The British Admiralty, to increase ease of manufacture, standardised the Southern Cross by giving the four biggest stars seven points and five for the faintest Epsilon Crucis. The Commonwealth Star originally had only 6 points, representing the six federating colonies. However, this changed in 1908 when a seventh point was added to symbolise the Territory of Papua. At this time, the original design of the Southern Cross was used, and there was confusion on this issue until a complete specification for the current design was published in the Commonwealth Gazette in 1934.

The Australian flag existed in two versions, the Australian Red Ensign for merchant ships and the Blue Ensign for government use. There remained confusion as to which flag should be flown by ordinary citizens on land. By traditional British understanding, the Blue Ensign would be reserved for Commonwealth Government use, with State and local governments, private organisations and individuals all using the Red Ensign. However, in the 1940s, successive governments encouraged private citizens to use the Australian Blue Ensign as the national emblem. In 1951, King George VI approved a recommendation by the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies that the Australian Blue Ensign be adopted as the National Flag.

This status was formalised on 14 February 1954, when Elizabeth II gave Royal Assent to the Flags Act 1953. This was the first Australian legislation to receive the monarch's Assent in person, and was timed to coincide with the Queen's visit to the country. The Act also gives powers to the Governor-General to approve new official flags. In 1996, the Flags Act was amended by stipulating rules for changing the National Flag's design; to replace the flag entirely, a referendum must be held.


Guidelines for flying the flag are laid out 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, the Australian Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag are allowed to be flown on every day of the year. 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.

The flagpole on Parliament House is 81 metres tall and the flag measures 12.8 m by 6.4 m, about the size of half a tennis court.
The flagpole on Parliament House is 81 metres tall and the flag measures 12.8 m by 6.4 m, about the size of half a tennis court.

The Prime Minister's Department 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 flagpole. When the flag is flown at half-mast, it should be positioned one flag-width down from the top of the pole. Flags are flown at half-mast on government buildings:

  • 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 a.m..
  • On the death of a member of a 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 half-mast until noon.
  • On Remembrance Day flags are flown at peak till 10:30 am, at half-mast from 10:30 am to 11:03 am, then at peak the remainder of the day.

The Department provides a subscription-based email service called the Commonwealth Flag Network, which gives information on national occasions to fly the flag at half-mast as well as national days of commemoration and celebration of the flag.

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.

There have been several attempts to make desecration of the Australian flag a crime. In 1953, during the second reading debate on the Flags Act, the leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, unsuccessfully called for provisions to be added to the bill to criminalise 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 which 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.

National Flag Day

In 1996, the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, issued a proclamation establishing an annual Australian National Flag Day, to be held on 3 September. Flag Day celebrations had been occurring in Sydney since 1984. They were initiated by vexillographer John Christian Vaughan to commemorate the first occasion when the Flag was flown in 1901. On Flag Day, ceremonies are held in some major centres, and the Governor-General and some politicians attend or release statements to the media. Flag Day is not a public holiday.

Centenary Flag

On the centenary of the first flying of the flag, 3 September 2001, the Australian National Flag Association presented the Prime Minister with a flag intended to replace the missing original flag. This flag was not a replica of the original flag, on which the Commonwealth Star had only six points, but was a current Australian National Flag with a seven pointed Commonwealth Star. The flag has a special headband, including a cardinal red stripe and the inscription

The Centenary Flag. Presented to the Hon John Howard MP, Prime Minister of Australia on behalf of the people of Australia by the Australian National Flag Association on 3 September 2001 at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne to commemorate the first flying of the Australian National Flag on 3 September 1901 attended by the Rt Hon Sir Edmund Barton MHR, Prime Minister of Australia.

A warrant authorising the use of the Centenary Flag under section 6 of the Flags Act was issued by the Governor-General and the flag is now used as the official flag of state on important occasions.

Other Australian flags

Under Section 5 of the Flags Act 1953, the Governor-General may proclaim flags other than the National Flag and the Red Ensign as flags or ensigns of Australia. At this point, five flags have been appointed in this manner. The first two were the Royal Australian Navy Ensign and the Royal Australian Air Force Ensign, the flags used by the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force. The Australian Army uses the Blue Ensign. The Air Force and the Navy flew the appropriate British ensigns (the White Ensign and the Royal Air Force Ensign) until the adoption of similar ensigns based on the Australian National Flag in 1948 and 1967 respectively. The current Navy and Air Force Ensigns were officially appointed in 1967 and 1982 respectively.

In 1995, the Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag were also appointed flags of Australia. While mainly seen as a gesture of reconciliation, this recognition caused a small amount of controversy at the time, with then opposition leader John Howard describing it as divisive. Some indigenous people, such as the flag's designer Harold Thomas, felt that the government was appropriating their flag, saying it "doesn't need any more recognition".

The flag most recently appointed under Section 5 is the Australian Defence Force Ensign, in 2000. This flag is used to represent the Defence Force when more than one branch of the military is involved, such as at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and by the Minister for Defence.

Royal Australian Navy Ensign Royal Australian Air Force Ensign Australian Aboriginal Flag Torres Strait Islander Flag Australian Defence Force Ensign

In addition to the seven flags declared under the Flags Act there are two additional Commonwealth flags, the Australian Civil Aviation Ensign and Australian Customs Flag, eight Vice-Regal flags and nine State and Territory flags that are recognised as official flags through other means.

The flag debate

A poster calling for a redesign of the Australian Flag, released by Ausflag in 2000 to coincide with the 2000 Summer Olympics.
A poster calling for a redesign of the Australian Flag, released by Ausflag in 2000 to coincide with the 2000 Summer Olympics.

In connection with the issue of republicanism in Australia, there have been low-key but persistent debates over whether or not the Australian flag should be changed in order to remove the Union Flag from the canton. This debate has come to a head at a number of occasions, such as in the period immediately preceding the Australian Bicentenary in 1988, and also during the Prime Ministership of Paul Keating, who publicly supported a change in the flag and was famously quoted as saying:

I do not believe that the symbols and the expression of the full sovereignty of Australian nationhood can ever be complete while we have a flag with the flag of another country on the corner of it.

There are two lobby groups involved in the flag debate, the pro-change group Ausflag and the Australian National Flag Association (ANFA), who want to keep the current flag. The primary arguments for keeping the flag cite historic precedence, while the arguments for changing the flag are based around the idea that the current flag does not accurately depict Australia's status as an independent and multicultural nation. Ausflag periodically campaigns for flag change in association with national events, like the 2000 Summer Olympics and holds flag design competitions, while ANFA's activities include promotion of the current design through events like National Flag Day. Opinion polls indicate that Australians are split on the issues of flag change; for example, an AGB-McNair poll in 1995 that asked, "If a suitable design for a new Australian flag were found, would you be likely to support or oppose changing the flag in time for the 2000 Olympics?", found support among 50% of respondents and opposition from 46%. A 2004 NEWSPOLL which asked "Are you personally in favour or against changing the Australian flag so as to remove the Union Jack emblem?" was supported by 37% of respondents, and opposed by 57% with 11% uncommitted.

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