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Commonwealth of Australia

Last modified: 2019-07-30 by ian macdonald
Keywords: australia | southern cross | stars: southern cross | stars: 7 points |
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[Australian flag] image by António Martins, 28 Nov 2005

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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.
Christopher Vance, 26 February 1998

For more details, including a picture and a comparison with the New Zealand flag, see our page on the construction of the Australian flag.

History of the flag

Below is a summary of the history of the Australian flag. We have a separate page with a more detailed history. The links in the summary below point to the appropriate sections of the detailed history.


  • 1900: Competition held by the Evening Herald in which entries are required to contain the Union flag and Southern Cross.*
  • October 1900: A broader competition launched by the Review of Reviews in response.*
  • 29 April 1901: Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 27 Design competition for The Flag of Australia announced by the first Australian Prime Minister, Edmund Barton.
  • 3 September 1901: First official raising of the blue Australian Flag at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne (at the announcement of the winning design*).
  • 8 February 1902: Prime Minister requests Governor General to send the design (and the 'Federation flag' design) to London for Imperial Approval.*
  • King's Approval given between 21 August and 3 September 1902.*
  • 6 October 1902: Telegram to Governor General advising that design has been approved.*
  • 20 February 1903: Proclamation that King Edward VII had approved design for the Flag of Australia together with the warrant for Australian registered ships to fly the red ensign. (the design approved by the King differed from the original design in the number of points on the stars and the warrant was republished in Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 8*)
  • 2 June 1904: Federal Parliament passes a resolution to fly the flag in all public places whenever flags were used, giving the flag the same status as the Union Jack in Britain.*
  • 1 June 1908: Australian Army Military Order, No 58/08, directs all military establishments to fly the 'Australian Ensign' in place of the Union Jack.*
  • 19 December 1908: Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 65 (page 1709) announced addition of 7th point to the Commonwealth Star to represent Australian Territories.
  • 1911:Naval Order 78/1911 directs all vessels of the Royal Australian Navy to fly the flag of the 'Australian Commonwealth' at the jack staff and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy at the stern as the symbol of the authority of the crown.
  • 23 March 1934: Commonwealth Gazette No.18 gives descriptions and specifications of the Australian Blue Ensign and the red merchant flag of Australia.
  • 14 April 1954: Commonwealth Government 'Flags Act 1953' (Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No 24*) the status of The Flag confirmed by legislation and title to be the Australian National Flag.
  • 3 September 1996: Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. S321 Proclamation of Australian National Flag Day - (Anniversary of our Flag). Commemorating the day in 1901 on which the Australian National Flag was first flown.
  • 24 March 1998: Flag Amendments Bill amended the Flags Act 1953 to ensure that the Australian National Flag can only be changed if the electorate approves.
  • 20 September 2001: Commonwealth Gazette No. S382 (Special) Proclamation of the Centenary Flag Warrant. The Centenary Flag is the flag presented on 3 September 2001 to the Prime Minister by the Australian National Flag Association, being an Australian National Flag suitably inscribed with flag centenary message.
Nigel Morris, 7 June 2002
* added by editor.

Red Ensign (Merchant Ensign)

[Australian civil ensign] image by António Martins, 28 Nov 2005

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]
David Prothero, 12 September 2001

This Admiralty Warrant authorising the wearing of the Commonwealth Red Ensign in place of the British Red Ensign had been signed on 25 November 1938 by Charles Little and Geoffrey S. Arbuthnot, and by command of their Lordships, R.H.A. Carter. The text of the Warrant was published in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 32, Thursday 18 May 1939, on pages 841 and 842 under the signature of R.G. Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister.
Jeff Thomson, 4 September 2017

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]
David Prothero, 12 September 2001

After the 1953 Flags Act, the 'blue ensign' became the national flag for private citizens on land. This is still true today.
Miles Li, 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 [was] 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

A brochure can now be found at: The Australian Attorney-General's Department web site, which is linked from the above referenced Australian Maritime Safety Authority web site, confirms Regulation 22 (Section 30) applies.
Colin Dobson, 3 April 2005

The history of Australian Red Ensign (ARE) use on land continues due to the Merchant Navy Association flying the ARE at their headquarters and at memorial services. A number of TV history dramas have ARE flying, The Dunera Boys was one such example. Old sailors may do so also. Re-enactments of historical events also use the ARE. Finally, there is a history, however limited, of it still being used at rural agricultural fairs. I can recall seeing it used at the ANZAC Day March in the late 1960s. The ARE is still in declining evidence on land.
Steve Duke, 5 September 2007

The third of September is both Australian National Flag Day (proclaimed 1996) and Merchant Navy Day (proclaimed 2008). On this day Australians are encouraged to fly both the national flag and red ensign on land, the ARE subordinate to the ANF. At present the ARE is only approved for use on land for ceremonial purposes. It can also be seen in some politicians' offices as a display flag.
Jeff Thomson, 15 October 2015

During the trials period before newly-built Royal Australian Navy ships and submarines are commissioned, they are given the NUSHIP prefix to their name and fly the Australian Red Ensign.
Jeff Thomson, 4 September 2017

Flying the Union Jack in Australia

The (Australian) Flags Act,1953; Section 8 (p. 2) states “This Act does not effect the right or privilege of a person to fly the Union Jack.”

I understand that this particular Section was drafted during the period of Prime Minister Robert Menzies to ensure that any Australian could continue to fly the Union Jack if they so desired.

One could run the argument that prior to the Proclamation of the Flags Act, 1953 ( in 1954 ); that the Union Jack was actually the National Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia, being a Dominion, and that the Australian Red Ensign ( Maritime and de facto Civilian ), and the Australian Blue Ensign ( Government ) were, being Ensigns, subsidiary to the National Flag, being the Union Jack.

If you look at photos pre-1954 you will notice that where both the Union Jack and the Red or Blue Australian Ensign appear together, the Union Jack is to the left of the Australian Ensign; however, post proclamation, the Union Jack is displayed to the right of the Australian Blue Ensign, which is now called the Australian National Flag.

Therefore, the practical effect of the Flag Act, 1953 is that while recognising the former Australian Blue Ensign as the Australian National Flag , the continued flying of the Union Jack was specifically authorised to continue, and furthermore, this is still the case to this day.
Philip Miller, 9 October 2018

Indeed, the Flags Act 1953 had the effect of reversing the protocol priority of what had de facto developed as a dual national flag: the Australian blue ensign and the Union Jack, as explained by Mr Miller. Over time, the usage of the Union Jack in Australia diminished, so by the 1970s it was rarely seen alongside the Australian National Flag.
Ralph Kelly, 10 October 2018

When first enacted the Flags Act 1953 Section 8 amounted to a declaration of loyalty, and of reassurance to the very many Australians of the time who still thought of themselves as British. It gave all Australians a legislated 'right or privilege' to fly the Union Jack that British nationals did not have. As the relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom evolved over time (with complete legislative independence from 3 March 1986) it became difficult to see any particular reason (other than historic or commemorative) why an Australian should want or need to fly the Union Jack. The UK is now a foreign nation in relation to Australia, so essentially Australians have the legal 'right or privilege' to fly a foreign nation's de facto national flag.

The specified Pantone number for the red of the Australian National Flag and presumably the Australian Red Ensign is 185, a brighter red than the 186 specified for the British and New Zealand flags. Many Australian flags do in fact use this lighter red which looks particularly striking in the case of the Australian Red Ensign. However this also implies that there is an 'Australian Union Jack' using Pantone 185 red, as found in the Union cantons of many Australian flags.
Jeff Thomson, 21 July 2019