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Commonwealth of Australia

Last modified: 2003-04-19 by jonathan dixon
Keywords: australia | southern cross | stars: southern cross |
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[Australian flag] by Antonio Martins
Flag adopted 1909-MAY-22, coat of arms adopted 1912-SEP-19
See also:

Design of the flag

The Australian flag is composed of three parts:

  • The Union Jack (British flag) in the top left corner,
  • The 'Star of Federation' in the bottom left corner, and
  • The Southern Cross, taking up the right half of the flag.
The Union Jack shows that the first colonisation by Europeans was by Britain. In case you didn't know, Australia started as a penal colony. The Star of Federation is a seven pointed star. They came to the number seven, by giving each state (six in all) a point on the star, and having one more point for Australia's territories (of which there are several). There are two mainland territories, and several overseas, including two in Antarctica. The Southern Cross is a constellation that can be seen from all of Australia's states and territories.
Giuseppe Bottasini

All the stars have an inner diameter (circle on which the inner corners rest) of 4/9 the outer diameter (circle of outer corners), even the 5-point star. The positions of the stars are as follows:

  • commonwealth star - centred in lower hoist,
  • alpha - straight below centre fly 1/6 up from bottom edge,
  • beta - 1/4 of the way left and 1/16 up from the centre fly,
  • gamma - straight above centre fly 1/6 down from top edge,
  • delta - 2/9 of the way right and 31/240 up from the centre fly,
  • epsilon - 1/10 of the way right and 1/24 down from the centre fly.
The positions of alpha-epsilon are given with respect to the centre of the square fly, and distances in terms of hoist width of the flag. See
this page at the Ausflag site for more details.
Christopher Vance, 26 February 1998

History of the flag

[1901 Flag]
by Blas Delgado Ortiz, 6 June 2001

A competition was held to find the flag that would be adopted by the new nation of Australia late last century (Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901). Thousands of submissions were received, but something very interesting occurred: six of the flags received (no two from areas close to one another) were virtually identical. Not only had the same design been received six times independently from different parts of the country, but it looked good too. The flags differed only in small details (the number of points on the various stars, the size of the Union Jack, etc). The committee looking at the flags eventually decided on a flag that was not exactly the same as any one of the six, but similar to all of them. The prize money was shared between the six contestants. The flag was not actually adopted offically until 1952.
Rick Brockway

Australia's first `Federal' flag was chosen from a national flag competition held in 1901. Initially started by the Melbourne newspaper The Review of Reviews, the new Federal Government joined the competition (Gazetted 29 April 1901) and doubled the prize money to 150 pounds. The competition attracted 32,823 entries.

The first condition of the entry rules stipulated that the design "should be based on the British Ensigns, as the flag of the country added to its folds, signalling to the beholder that it is an Imperial Union Ensign of the British Empire." This essentially meant that inclusion of the Union Flag in the design was mandatory. The judges (five of them Naval officers) refused to consider designs that did not contain the Union Flag.

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, usually on aesthetic grounds rather than its Anglophile nature.

In the original design 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.

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.
Dov Gutterman, 14 December 1998

Foley notes:

Originally the Commonwealth Star had six points, each point symbolizing one of the new federating States. However, in July 1908, it was proposed that the Commonwealth Star be amended to a seven-pointed star, the extra point representing the Territory of Papua New Guinea, which had been newly acquired in 1905.

Typically for those times the amendment was not simply made by the Commonwealth Government. Instead, a proposal to add the seventh point was laid before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty who authorized the amendment in respect of the Australian National Flag, the Merchant Navy Flag (by virtue of issuing a Warrant pursuant to S 73 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (UK) and the star in the Governor-General's badge. These amendments were notified in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette on 19 December 1908 and the amended designs themselves were published some months later in the Gazette on 22 May 1909. However, full details and exact specifications of the amendments were not published in the Gazette until 25 years later, again "with the concurrence of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty", on 23 March 1934.
Phil Nelson, 28 September 2000

The change in the number of points was caused by a change in the status of the Territory, rather than by the aquisition of a new territory. In 1883 part of New Guinea was annexed by Queensland. In 1884 a British protectorate was proclaimed and in 1888 it was annexed to the British Crown. In 1901 it was assigned to the Commonwealth of Australia for five years and in 1906 it was proclaimed a territory of the Commonwealth under the name Papua.
David Prothero and Jonathan Dixon, 13 September 2001

The 'Flags Act 1953' (Act No. 1 of 1954) was passed by the Commonwealth Parliament in November 1953 proclaiming definitively the Australian Blue Ensign as the national flag and the Australian Red Ensign as the proper colours for merchant ships registered in Australia.
David Cohen, 26 March 1999

The Australian Flags Act which gives design specs for the Australian flag does not give colour definitions apart from simply saying blue, red and white. It does say that a UJ occupies the canton, so it's safe to assume that the colours would be the same as the UK's but there's no technical reason why the non-UJ parts of flag can't use slightly different shades. I remember reading a quote from Ivor Evans, one of the designers of the Australian flag, speaking in the 1950's I think, he made reference to the blue on the Australian flag being changed from Navy Blue to Royal Blue, possibly in 1909, but it could even have been a few years later.
Dylan Crawfoot, 28 July 1999

Judging by the date, this probably refers to a general change, when the specification for the blue used in all Union Flags and Blue Ensigns was altered to matched the shade of blue specified for the Royal Standard. Pattern 74 "Royal Blue", replaced Pattern 63 "Dark Blue".

This is recorded in the Public Record Office document ADM 116/1072, 1908/9 errata to 1907 edition Admiralty Flag Book, and has fabric samples of various shades of blue.
David Prothero, 29 July 1999

Barraclough, in: Flags of the World, 1971 writes: (p.235) 'It was not until the passing of the Flags Act, 1953, that legislative effect was given to the use of the Blue Ensign. When the Bill was being drafted, the question of the shade of the blue color was raised. After due consideration, it was decided to adopt the shade of royal blue. Australians are indeed very proud of the fact that H.M. Queen Elizabeth II gave her personal assent to the Act on February 15th 1954, during her visit to Canberra, the Federal capital. This was an historic occasion of some importance in that it was the first Australian legislation to which a reigning sovereign had ever assented in Australia.'

Jarig Bakker, 29 July 1999

Red Ensign (Merchant Ensign)

[Australian civil ensign]
by Antonio Martins

The Admiralty Warrant of 4 June 1903 authorised the Australian Red Ensign for vessels registered in Australia. In 1932 it was realised that this did not include the majority of private non-commercial vessels, which were rarely registered. Technically they were liable to a substantial fine if they did not fly the British Red Ensign. An Admiralty Warrant of 5 December 1938 replaced that of 1903 and authorised all ships and boats owned by British residents in Australia and New Guinea Mandated Territory to fly the Australian Red Ensign. [Public Record Office ADM 1/8760/224 and ADM 1/9477]

Initially, the Red Ensign was the only flag private citizens could fly on land. In 1941 Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister, announced that there should be no restriction on flying the Australian Blue Ensign, and in 1947 the Prime Minister, who was then Joseph Chifley, issued a press statement that actively encouraged its use by private citizens. [The Australian Flag [fol96] by Carol Foley] After the 1953 Flags Act, the situation was reversed, the 'blue ensign' became the only flag private citizens could fly on land, while the use of the Red Ensign on land were prohibited. This is still true today.
David Prothero and Miles Li, 12-15 September 2001

Under Section 30 of the 1981 Shipping Registration Act, an Australian merchant ship can fly only the Australian Red Ensign, but other Australian vessels can fly either the Australian Red Ensign or the Australian National Flag, but not both at the same time.
David Prothero, 16 September 2001

At is an online brochure published by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which confirms and expands on what David said:

Flying the Flag

Registered commercial ships over 24 metres in tonnage length must fly the Australian Red Ensign. All other registered ships have the choice of flying either the Australian National Flag or the Red Ensign.

An unregistered Australian owned ship can be issued with a certificate entitling it to fly either flag. Some ships are allowed to fly other flags in Australian waters only. These include: a State or Territory flag, a flag or ensign authorised by warrant under the Flags Act 1953, and the British Blue Ensign if the owner intending to fly it has a warrant to do so valid under British law.

The full text of the statute is at
Joe Macmillan, 17 September 2001