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Australian States and Territories

Commonwealth of Australia

Last modified: 2016-02-27 by ian macdonald
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Symbolism of Australian State and Territory Flags

I'm sorry to say that most of the badges on the Australian State Flags are effectiveley meaningless - at least officially. The state flags generally were created in the period 1870 to 1876. The practice developed within the British Empire that the Governor of a colony could add some form of local badge or coat of arms onto the Union Jack to represent his special personal rank as the Queen's representative in the colony. Similarly, ships in the service of the colonial government could use a British Blue Ensign with the badge of the colony added to the blue field - this badge was supposed to be the same as that used by the Governor on his version of the Union Jack. Ordinary citizens of the colony would, if they wanted to use a flag on land use the Union Jack without any marks. Colonial ships were generally supposed to use the British Red Ensign without a badge, though there were a few exceptions (Victoria and Australia from 1903).

Because some of the Australian state badges were originaly created to represent the Governor (as distinct from the Colony) they generally showed some element of British royal heraldry - the main criteria being that it be different from similar badges used in other parts of the Empire. Tasmania uses one red heraldic lion (Cyprus used two lions and Kenya a heraldic lion standing) whilst Queensland uses a blue Maltese Cross (Malta used a red cross). The Crown on the Queensland and Victoria badges represented the status of the Governor as representative of Queen Victoria in the Colony. Victoria adopted the Southern Cross in 1870 initially for use on the HMCS Nelson - one of the early warships of the Colonial Navy. The Southern Cross had become fairly well associated with Australia during the 19th Century, remember Eureka in 1854. After some changes to the shapes of the stars, the British Admiralty (which controlled the use of flags in the British Empire) agreed to allow Victoria to use the Southern Cross (though it was similar to New Zealand, and it stopped New South Wales and South Australia from using the Southern Cross). There is no official explanation for the design of New South Wales's badge, but it is thought to be based on the unofficial local flag used from 1832 (which was later revived as the Federation Flag). The stars on the cross are considered to be representative of the Southern Cross, whilst the lion has the same purpose as on the Tasmanian badge - to represent the royal authority of the Governor.

Western Australia's badge was the only design intended to clearly symbolise the colony. WA was originally called the Swan River Settlement and the black swan found upon the river had become recognised as representing the Colony. South Australia initially had a complicated design which was the full rendition of the colony's seal (an allegorical depiction of Brittannia and an Aboriginal), but upon Federation a simpler design was adopted. The 1904 design shows in heraldic form a local bird - what was called a Piping Shrike, a form of magpie. There has been some speculation that the stylisation of the bird was inspired by the Imperial German (and Austrian) heraldic eagle.

The Northern Territory flag was designed in 1978 upon the granting of self government. Since the Northern Territory was never a British Colony, it never was given a colonial badge as used by the States. The main device is a stylised local flower - Sturts desert rose with the seven petals forming a seven pointed star symbolic of the Territory as potentially the seventh state. The Southern Cross represents NT's location and the style of the stars is the same as used by Victoria (since the designer was a Victorian artist). The colour Ochre represents the NT earth and the black panel is regarded by some as representing the aboriginal people.

The Norfolk Island flag features the Norfolk Island pine and has no significance other than its natural uniqueness to the island and traditional use as a symbolic representation of the island.

The ACT flag follows the pattern established by the NT. It features the coat of arms of Canberra - much of the symbolism representing government. The dark and light swans represent Aboriginal and European Australians. The colours blue and yellow were long regarded as Australia's heraldic colours and became associated with the ACT.

The Christmas Island flag is an unofficial community flag and the design includes a map of the island and a frigate bird. It should be noted that a lot of the symbolism of flags is invented long after they have been designed - and sometimes is revised when a different political fashion achieves power. Many flags are just geometric arrangements that have, through use, come to become identified with a political entity. That most of the Australian state flags are so poor in representing their locations is the result of history - but that same history prevents many from redesigning the flags so that they serve their principle purpose of being identifiable and representative of the state.
Ralph Kelly, 19 September 1999

Was the NSW ensign sometimes made in a simplified form without the lion and stars?

One of the flags in a photograph of the opening of the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington in 1902 is a British ensign with a cross on a white circle in the fly. The ensign that it most nearly resembles is that of NSW, but there are definitely no emblems on the cross.
David Prothero, 19 September 1999

State Governors' Flags

The Governor of a colony could add some form of local badge or coat of arms onto the Union Jack to represent his special personal rank as the Queen's representative in the colony. The Australian Governors continued to use Union Jacks defaced with the state badge in a laurel wreath after federation, though typically used an undefaced Union Jack on land until the mid 1980's.
Ralph Kelly, 4 August 2004

Australian State Governors started to change their respective flags to slight variations of the respective State Flags, with the addition of the St. Edward's Crown above the fly badge in September 1975, when Australia was entering a Constitutional Crisis over the powers of the British Monarch's representatives in Australia, the Governor-General (Nationally) and Governors (States). For full details about Australia's Vice-Regal Flags, may I suggest that people refer to my 18th. I.C.V. Lecture Australia's Vice-Regal Legacy, [brt01]

Dates of current State Governor's Flag adoption:

Ralph Bartlett, 4 August 2004

The only states to not use the state flag with crown above the badge were Victoria and Queensland, which both already had a crown in the their badge. The Victorian Governor's flag is basically the Victorian state flag as a "gold" ensign rather than a blue one, with red stars. Queensland still uses the Union Jack defaced with the badge surrounded by a laurel wreath, although as mentioned in the most recent edition of Crux Australis [cxa], there is some talk of following the Victorian model and simply changing the state flag's field to maroon.
Jonathan Dixon, 4 August 2004

To summarise, quoting Australian Flags [ozf98]:

The Governor of each Australian State has a personal flag, generally the State flag with the addition of a crown above the badge, as illustrated below. The Administrator of the Northern Territory flies the Australian national flag.

The only exceptions to this are the state Governor's flags of Victoria and Queensland, as described above. But, note also the slight change in position of the badges on the state flags of Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales, when the crown is placed on top of them to make the State Governors' flags.
Colin Dobson, 4 August 2004

It appears that each Aussie Governor's flag incorporating the "crown over badge" theme may have its own individual artistic quirks built in. Western Australia and South Australia's Governor's flags, although virtually identical, are not spitting images of one another where crown placement and size are concerned, even in original art work.
Clay Moss, 11 September 2006

Definitely. The only way that they would be exactly the same would be if each state had bothered to copy the first one in all the details. Given the amount of attention to detail we have seen in the original State Flags Bill in Western Australia, and the Australian states' historical record in co-operation and standardisation, it's hardly surprising that that didn't happen!
Jonathan Dixon, 12 September 2006