Parliament House Puzzle

Dr Elizabeth Kwan, Historian

Can you see anything surprising about Septimus Power's painting?

He captured on canvas the moment the Duke and Duchess of York arrived at the steps of Parliament House to open the building. The Duke's flag above the entrance to the building was ready to be unfurled when he unlocked the front door. Large Union flags, flown to the left of Australian flags, had precedence. That was not surprising: after all the Union flag, known as the Union Jack, was 'the national flag' in the same way that God Save the King was 'the national anthem'. Australian flags, red and blue ensigns, gave the national flag the place of honour: they were ensigns of the national flag, as were, for example, Canadian ensigns.

Power's painting shows red rather than blue ensigns on Parliament House.

The opening of this first federal Parliament House, a highly significant occasion for the Commonwealth of Australia, could be expected to feature the blue ensign. That ensign was for official purposes, as the flag competition of 1901 and the Gazette in 1903 made clear. The red ensign was for commercial shipping.

Is Power's painting accurate?

Black and white photographs of the time do show that Union flags and Australian ensigns were used on Parliament House, but not whether those ensigns were red or blue. A coloured pencil sketch held in the National Archives of Australia suggests that the Federal Capital Commission preparing the celebrations intended to use blue ones. But other records in that Archives show that both red and blue ensigns were brought to Canberra to decorate its streets and buildings. Sydney's Mitchell Library has a lithograph by an unknown artist which marks the 1927 opening: it features blue ensigns. Perhaps Power was using artistic licence, a practice not unknown in commissioned paintings recording historical events. He was known for his ability to create dramatic effect in his paintings. His red ensigns certainly highlight the St George crosses in the Union Jacks and the carpet leading from the Duke's carriage to the front door. Would blue ensigns have been visually as effective?

Perhaps Power was using the red ensign as the people's flag, since that was the flag Australians were expected to use if they wanted to fly an Australian flag. The two ensigns of 1903 were essentially shipping flags. As they came to be used on land, there was confusion about who could use them. The custom that only the Commonwealth government could use the blue ensign held sway until the mid 1920s when all public buildings – except public schools – could use that ensign. Private businesses and individuals had to use the red ensign. Not until World War II were Australians allowed, even encouraged to use the blue ensign. But the confusion over the two ensigns was not resolved by the federal government until its decision in December 1950 to make the blue ensign the Australian national flag, which the Flags Act 1953 confirmed (see Documenting A Democracy).

The red ensign is still with us today as a commercial shipping flag. Despite the government's attempt in 1980 to make the blue ensign Australia's national flag for all purposes, it found that it could not ignore merchant mariners' attachment to the 'Red Duster'.