Behind the flag: the problem with calls to ‘unify’ the nation.

This month, leader of the Australian Greens Adam Bandt sparked a furore when he removed the Australian flag from the stage upon which he was to deliver a press conference. He later explained that he did so as an expression of solidarity with First Nations people from the land now known as ‘Australia’. Conservative Australian commentator Derryn Hinch summed up the mainstream media’s reaction to this when he said: ‘I think it’s disgusting, almost treasonous.’

That night, Channel 10’s The Project ran a much talked about segment called ‘Flag Wars’, structured around host Waleed Aly’s provocative opening question: ‘national disgrace, or an act of solidarity?’

The segment opened with a montage showing the flag-related practices of other politicians. Matt Canavan and Donald Trump hugged and kissed their respective flags. Peter Dutton did the opposite to Bandt, and removed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Flags from his press conference, leaving only the Australian flag. And finally, newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese posed with all three.

Each of these contrasting practices offers a window into the vision of the nation (and the politics) espoused by these political figures. All are worth unpacking, though it is not my intention to do so here. Nor is it my intention to deal comprehensively with Channel 10’s segment, and the broader issues to which it points and of which it is but an expression. For an excellent analysis these issues, see Phoebe McIlwraith’s Stand Back Waleed: Sovereignty is more complex than an oath.

Instead, I want to focus on a particular aspect of the segment: the moment Waleed Aly challenged Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, who confirmed that she also removes the flag from her press conferences because ‘it represents the colonisation of these lands,’ and neither reconciliation nor treaty have been achieved. In response, Aly posed a question: ‘But if you want to unify the nation, is the correct starting point that the nation itself is illegitimate?’

Embedded within this loaded question, and the discourse that then unfolded, are several common colonial assumptions. One, is the idea the nation is legitimate. Another, is that reconciliation and national unification are the same thing. From these two assumptions stems a third: that the ‘legitimate’ nation is both the starting point and the desired end point of the process of reconciliation (whatever that may be).

However, reconciliation is a highly contested concept. What it is, means or could be, and what people want or hope for from it, differs, often drastically. For this reason, many have pointed out that in the spirit of reconciliation itself, its meaning should never be merely assumed from the outset, and nor should its definition be ‘fixed’. Rather, it should remain open, and indeed, forever open to change.

In contradistinction to this, Aly’s question and subsequent discourse implies that those who pursue reconciliation should do so both by unifying the nation, and, in order to unify the nation, simultaneously. In this vision, national unification is both the means and the end of reconciliation. That is, the ‘legitimate’ nation both precedes and is the result of reconciliation.

Thus, whereas Aly accuses Thorpe—at least implicitly—of undermining reconciliation by starting from the position that the nation is ‘illegitimate’, he and many others undermine it by starting from the opposite position: with the claim the nation is legitimate, and that its unification is to be aspired to.

The problem of this position—that the nation is legitimate, and will exist pre- and post-reconciliation—can be highlighted in reference to Benedict Anderson’s influential conceptualisation of both nations and nationalism. In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Anderson famously writes that the nation is an ‘imagined political community.’ It is imagined, he says, ‘because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their imaginary communion.’ Nationalists—whether they see themselves as such, or not—are those who strongly invest in this image, and who come to feel a powerful affinity for both the nation and its symbols, such as the flag. Indeed, for the nationalists of the ‘Flag Wars’ saga, it appears that if the flag is not behind you at a press conference, then you are not behind the flag, nor by extension, the very nation itself.

By making an investment in the nation and its symbols a prerequisite to commencing the process they call ‘reconciliation’, nationalists are not really ‘offering’ reconciliation at all. Rather, they are seeking to reconcile an image of the nation into which they themselves are already invested, and so too are invested in preserving. 

If one pursues reconciliation by assuming what the end result will be, or should be, then the process is overdetermined from the very beginning. Indeed, the process itself—whatever that could be—becomes colonised (again) by the colonisers.

Liam Gillespie

Liam Gillespie is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Melbourne. He is currently researching ethnic nationalism, racism, populism, and far-right extremism, with an emphasis on street-based protest movements, riots, political violence, and the body.

More by Liam Gillespie ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays