On 3 September 1901. the Flag of Australia and Australian Red Ensign were adopted by the Government of Australia as official flags, following a national design competition. The flag was first flown from the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne.
Australia′s first ′Federal′ flag was chosen from a national flag competition held in 1901. Initially started by the Melbourne monthly magazine The Review of Reviews for Australasia, the new Federal Government announced a further competition (Gazetted 29 April 1901) and the earlier competition entries were transferred and the prize was increased to 200 pounds. The competition attracted 32 823 entries.
The entry rules for the private competition were highly suggestive and the judging and approval process were such that only a British Ensign with a badge representative of Australia was likely to be a winner.
When the winning flag design was chosen, a review of the entries revealed that five people submitted almost identical designs. These people were declared joint winners and shared the prizemoney. They were:
- Annie Dorrington, Artist, Perth (1866-1926)
- Ivor Evans, Student, Haymarket, Melbourne (1888-1960)
- Leslie Hawkins, Student, Leichhardt, Sydney (1883-1966)
- Egbert Nuttall, Architect, Prahran, Melbourne (1866-1963)
- William Stevens, Steamship Officer, Auckland, New Zealand (1866-1928)
Australia′s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, announced the winning design in Melbourne on 3 September 1901. The design had a mixed reception and caused some controversy at the time, on aesthetic grounds as much as its Anglophile nature. The Australian Natives′ Association in particular felt that it was unsuitable or insufficiently patriotic.
The original design was similar to the current flag, except the Federation Star contained only 6 points and the Southern Cross was represented by stars ranging from 5 to 9 points to indicate their relative apparent brightness in the night sky. Also, the field was red for Civil use, with the blue ensign being reserved for Government use only.
The adoption of the winning flag design was never debated in the Australian Parliament – it was sent to the Imperial Authorities in England to be approved. It wasn′t until late 1902 that King Edward VII formally notified the Australian Government of the approval, and this approval was finally Gazetted on 20 February 1903.
The original design has been changed three times since 1901. First, in 1903 the design was changed so that all but the smallest star in the Southern Cross had seven points, ostensibly to improve the ease of manufacture. In 1906 Australia acquired the Territory of Papua, and to indicate this the number of points on the Federation Star was increased to seven in 1908. This second design change was Gazetted on 22 May 1909.
When the Northern Territory and ACT were created as Federal Territories in 1911, the number of points on the Federation Star was not increased and remained at seven. The red ensign remained the Civil flag and the blue ensign the Government flag.
However, the flag still had no legal status beyond the original British Admiralty authorisations which only related to use at sea. It wasn′t until the Flags Act 1953 (enacted 1954) was passed by the Menzies Government that Australia finally had an official national flag, and one that was required to be flown in a superior position to any other national flag (including the Union Flag).
The Flags Act 1953 formally adopted the current design 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.
The Australian flag was usually flown in conjunction with, often in an inferior position to, the Union Flag of the UK well into the 1960s despite the requirements of the Flags Act 1953. Many Australians considered themselves to be Britons, and Arthur Smout in his 1968 The Flag Book lamented the fact that many seemed to show more loyalty to the Union Flag than to the Australian flag.
Today, there is a growing debate about whether Australia should adopt a new flag, as many see the current British ensign-based design as inappropriate in an increasingly multicultural country that has been progressively weakening its ties with Britain since 1901. Also, the Union Flag occupies what is known as the vexillological honour point, and as Australia becomes more independent, many think Australian symbols rather than the flag of another nation should occupy this position.